South Africa dancing on a knife’s edge

 ·20 Nov 2023

While politicians and government officials assure that Eskom’s performance is improving and spread hope for a more energy-filled future – the reality of the situation is far more tenuous.

Analysis of the latest available energy data from Eskom shows that the group’s plant performance has remained fairly weak and that grid stability is currently hinging on demand patterns.

According to independent energy analyst Pieter Jordaan, the group’s unplanned outages (breakdowns, or UCLF) have entrenched above 30% of total capacity – far higher than the 20% limit placed on the utility by the national energy regulator Nersa.

“At those levels, a small increase in demand will make life pretty miserable for all of us,” he said.

Over the past few weeks, it has become apparent that lower demand has been the main driver behind Eskom’s apparent improved performance, with UCLF and its energy availability factor (EAF) not showing significant signs of improvement.

Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa said on Sunday that Eskom was ramping up power cuts to replenish its emergency reserves.

This is because Eskom lost a “cluster” of units from different power stations across the country, amounting to over 2,700 megawatts (MW), shy of three stages of load shedding.

“And if we had not experienced that, of course, you would not be seeing the kind of intensity of load shedding that we are experiencing,” he said.

EAF continues to trend lower, deviating from Nersa’s 65% target, and UCLF is following a trend path higher. More worryingly, the utility is lagging in its data reporting, which Jordaan noted is also a distressing sign.

Ekom announced it was implementing stage 2 and stage 3 load shedding on rotation for Monday, moving to stage 1 and stage 3 for the rest of the week.

The shaky performance of the last two weeks has also arrested the slight improvements in trend data from October, when load shedding suspensions were more frequent and lasted longer.

Both the 91-day (quarterly) and 364 (annual) blackout trend lines have flattened out, meaning that whatever improvements were experienced in the last few weeks have stopped – and if improved performance isn’t realised soon, the country’s energy situation will head back in the wrong direction.

According to Jordaan, Eskom’s historic performance shows that the first two weeks of December carry elevated load shedding risks, due to increased maintenance levels (impacting plant availability) and raised power demand that precedes the festive period.

South Africa has already experienced the worst levels of blackouts on record and is still on track to double the total blackout hours seen in 2022 before the close of the year.

After adding 1.2 days of cumulative blackout hours this week, the blackout meter now totals 67.0 days (or 1,608 hours) for 2023 so far.

Over the same interval in 2022, some 590 blackout hours were accumulated. If load shedding yields a further 51 blackout hours this year – which is all but guaranteed – 2023 would beat the 2022 record twice over.

Currently, the accumulated blackout projection for the whole of 2023 stands at 75.6 days, or 1,814 hours.

In 2023 so far, South Africans had to cope without utility power for 5 hours a day on average; compared to 2 hours 15 minutes in 2022; and 30 minutes in 2021.

Read: Big win for Eskom – finally

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