Where Eskom used to use weekends to build grid capacity for the week ahead, it now appears to be building grid capacity during the week to give South Africans a break from load shedding on the weekend.
This is one of the observations from independent energy analyst Pieter Jordaan in his latest Power Availability Statistics (PAS) report for the 22nd week of 2023.
The PAS is a comprehensive dive into the nitty-gritty details of load shedding in South Africa.
While reports from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) measure outages in South Africa in the total gigawatt hours shed, and platforms like EskomSePush look at total hours in load shedding, Jordaan’s data looks at more impactful points like blackout hours (i.e., actual time spent in the dark) and the Power Availability Ratio (PAR) of the grid.
PAR represents the time consumers have utility power available after deducting the load shedding outage times, expressed as a percentage. At 100%, households have full access to grid power. Every 7% below that point represents a full stage of load shedding where power is taken away.
According to Jordaan, South Africa’s rolling seven-day average of PAR (PAR-7) shows that the country is currently sitting near 72% – an average of stage 4 load shedding. The worst the country ever reached was an average of 58% (near stage 6) in February 2023 – a record that has not (yet) been breached.
However, if current trends continue, the move to stage 7 could be right around the corner.
Looking at the long-term trend, the PAR has been deteriorating rather rapidly, with Eskom simply unable to recover availability beyond stage 4.
Jordaan’s analysis shows that every month since September 2022 has recorded a “crisis episode” where power availability drops suddenly.
The only exception to this was March 2023, where only recoveries were recorded. However, since the recovery peak in March, the grid has again shown a major declining trend, with a push to stage 7 load shedding becoming increasingly likely.
Notably, however, the PAR-7 has not managed to recover above the 72% mark (stage 4) for 30 days, Jordaan said, making it increasingly more difficult for things to improve without intervention.
“This makes it highly probable that the June crisis will pierce the stage 6 resistance level unless there are imminent initiatives that can shift the recovery slope upwards once more,” he said.
There may be some hope, with Eskom announcing this weekend that load shedding stages will be lighter this week, ranging between stage 1 and stage 4. This is due to recoveries at some of its power stations as well as lower-than-anticipated demand.
However, the warnings from its latest system update remain: if winter demand shoots up and the group cannot keep unplanned outages (breakdowns) below 15,000MW, higher stages of load shedding are all but guaranteed.
Weekend trend reversal
Jordaan said the recovery shift in March 2023 prompted him to analyse the day of the week and public holiday PAR averages to gauge their effect on the PAR-7.
The analysis showed that in the first quarter of 2023, there were outage discounts of 6% points on Sundays (almost one stage) and 19% points (almost three stages) on public holidays compared to the quarterly average.
In simple terms, this reflects the trend of weekends and public holidays becoming the “lightest” days of load shedding compared to the weekdays.
This stands in stark contrast to the quarters in 2022 when load shedding was more evenly distributed.
According to Jordaan, it appears as if Eskom has moved from building capacity on the weekends in preparation for the week ahead to building capacity during the week to give South Africans some relief on the weekend.
“One explanation could be that, due to the high intensity of load shedding in 2023, these weekend breaks are tactical steps to help alleviate load shedding fatigue,” Jordaan said. “By building up greater capacity during the week, it is possible to discount load shedding more aggressively over weekends and public holidays.”
Last year, weekends were often used to replenish reserves for the coming week, producing straight-line profiles. However, the curved trend line in the data shows that this has now reversed.
Weekends and public holidays are typically lighter on demand as industries shut down. In the past, Eskom would use this breathing room to perform critical maintenance and replenish reserves. However, more recently, the utility has opted to ease or even suspend load shedding on these days.
May was the worst month for load shedding ever
According to the latest data, May 2023 has been the worst month for load shedding on record.
The average daily stage of load shedding increased to 4.67 (previously, the record was 4.19 in February 2023), while the number of daily outages has jumped to 3.5 (from 3.14 in Feb23).
The number of outages per day in hours has also increased to an average of 7.88 (Feb23: 7.08), while the average power availability in hours has dropped to its lowest point at 16.12 (Feb23: 16.94).