Load shedding: South Africa walking a ‘razor thin’ line

 ·17 Jul 2023

The sudden escalation to stage 6 load shedding last week demonstrated how little room power utility Eskom has to manoeuvre when things don’t go its way.

The latest Power Availability Statistics from independent energy analyst Pieter Jordaan show just how quickly things can change.

After a massively positive trend on load shedding outages in June, just one week of higher stages of load shedding was enough to push a reversal in the trend data.

While South Africans more commonly use total hours of load shedding to gauge how bad outages are in the country, 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, the PAR-7 (weekly view) plunged 21 points over the past seven days – ending the week below the stage 4 average – something avoided in June.

“The small weekly PAR deteriorations observed over the previous four weeks culminated in a sudden correction as power demand returned to the normal winter trend,” Jordaan said.

The razor-thin buffer of reserve capacity maintained by the utility over the past few weeks proved inadequate when faced with a recent inland cold snap.”

The PAR-28 (month view) also turned, moving 5 points lower to 86%.

“Over the past year, a turn of 5 points usually signals a continued downward trend towards the previous low. A large down-beat of the PAR-7 is also a typical precursor and is present as pointed out in the data,” Jordaan said.

The only caveat, he noted, would be prolonged warmer weather or voluntary action from South Africa en masse that may keep power demand below the winter norm once again.

Jordaan’s analysis corroborates the messaging from Eskom and electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa. At a media briefing on Monday, the minister admitted that demand was far greater than anticipated, necessitating the stage 6 load shedding.

He said that any load shedding is unacceptable, but moving to stage 6 was particularly egregious.

He said that the sharp spike in demand (to around 34,000MW, which was the winter forecast) along side 11 units that were taken offline forced Eskom to dip into its emergency reserves – which were all used up by the weekend.

The utility also had to burn diesel extensively to prevent load shedding from escalating.

High levels of load shedding persisted over the weekend while Eskom stocked up on its reserves and will return to the ‘old’ cycle of stage 1 and stage 3 load shedding this week.

However, Eskom warned that demand is likely to pick up heading towards the end of the week, and reserves might again be low.

To this end, it urged South Africans to manage their electricity usage to curb demand.

According to Jordaan, South Africans have now spent a cumulative 47 days in the dark, with another 41 days expected.

Read: Eskom eases load shedding, with a warning – here’s the new schedule

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