Why load shedding got better – and not worse, as expected

 ·12 Jun 2023

Despite various warnings from energy analysts, politicians and even Eskom itself that load shedding would be far worse in winter, June has surprised with load shedding being suspended for more than half the day and kept to lower stages at night.

In April, electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa said that winter would be an incredibly difficult period.

“I’ll be brutally honest. It’s going to be an exceptionally difficult winter. We know that in summer conditions, the deficit is 6,000 megawatts. When we go into winter, the peak can go up to 37,000 megawatts,” the minister said.

Eskom also said that winter would see its grid under severe strain.

“It’s going to be a very tough winter,” the embattled power utility said.

However, load shedding so far in June has been at lower stages. For all of last week, load shedding was suspended between midnight and 16h00 each day – a pattern which will continue this week (until further notice).

Broadly, the change in load shedding can be attributed to the following:

  • A reduction in planned maintenance, cutting up to 4 stages of load shedding
  • A reduction in unplanned outages to around Eskom’s planned levels of 15,000MW
  • Increased wind energy generation due to stormy weather
  • Lower-than-expected demand (32,000MW vs 35,000-37,000MW)
  • Higher electricity tariffs in winter, curbing industry use
  • Changes to Eskom’s management structure
  • A boost in morale at Eskom

The Bureau for Economic Research (BER) said that the reprieve in daytime load shedding is due to Eskom’s energy availability factor (EAF) improving – up from 55.06% to 58.22% in the last week. This is partly due to a seasonal cutback in planned maintenance, with more generating units online.

For instance, Eskom, on 11 June, said that generating units out for planned maintenance stood at 3,766MW.

Despite a jump from the 2,497 MW out for planned maintenance just two days prior, it is still significantly less than the 7,147MW out for maintenance in late March. In other words, Eskom is saving about 4,000MW – equivalent to four stages of load shedding – by cutting back its planned maintenance.

The BER added that a reduction in unplanned outages and a substantial boost in wind energy generation also helped to increase generation.

Eskom Generation Executive Eric Shunmagum said that a series of winter storms over the last week helped offshore wind plants to boost their output.

In addition, the BER said that demand for power is significantly lower than Eskom expected.

During the evening peak on 10 June, Eskom said that demand totalled 31,391 MW. This is significantly lower than the 37,000 MW peak that Ramokgopa alluded to.

The BER added that the reduction in demand was due to the higher winter electricity tariffs kicking in, resulting in power-intensive smelters scaling back operations.

Eskom’s reason

Mpho Makwana, the chairman Eskom, said a change in the group’s management structure helped it improve generation.

“The amelioration has not been a fluke,” Makwana said.

He said that scrapping the post of chief operating officer – previously held by Jan Oberholzer – has given individual plant managers direct access to senior executives, which has helped to improve morale.

Despite the decrease in the severity of load shedding, the group’s EAF remains below the 64% the board had targeted at this point.

“We are making headway. It’s still early days to have song and dance, but we’ve seen this consistent performance for a full month now,” Makwana said.

He added that Eskom should soon turn a corner, with the EAF potentially rising to 70% by 2025.

Things can still change

Despite the evident improvement in energy availability and reduced load shedding, Eskom’s grid remains highly vulnerable to shocks, and the situation can change at any moment.

Should the group suffer more breakdowns or incredibly cold weather hits the country – pushing up demand – the old pattern of higher stages of load shedding could return. The country is operating on a very fine balance between supply and demand, and the smallest nudge on either side can cause the system to break.

The government’s and Eskom’s plans to address this imbalance and get rid of load shedding altogether are long-term, and only likely to give South Africa a solid foundation to beat the outages over the next 12 to 24 months.

The grid itself should be more stable near the end of 2023 and in early 2024 as units at Kusile and Medupi that have been offline for long periods come back into operation. In addition to this, approved independent energy projects should start coming online at the end of 2024.

Energy experts and academics have posited that load shedding will likely stick around – at whatever level is necessary – until 2025 at the very least, with the more bearish analysts seeing the outages linger until the end of the decade.

Read: South Africa’s load shedding pain is far from over

Show comments
Subscribe to our daily newsletter