Warning over the next electricity crisis in South Africa

 ·12 May 2024

Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa warns that South Africa is on the verge of experiencing another power crisis due to crumbling municipal infrastructure.

Ramokgopa has suggested that the country should shift its focus to the “next front” in the battle against power outages.

This comes as a result of the South African economy experiencing a reduction in the effects of load shedding, due to companies and households reducing their demand for electricity from Eskom.

Electricity demand in 2024 is 6% lower than in 2023, partly because of increased rooftop solar usage in households and businesses.

Additionally, three generating units at the Kusile Power Station returned to service.

If they operate at their peak capacity, these units generate 2,400 MW, eliminating two load-shedding stages.

However, this does not mean that South Africa is out of the woods regarding its energy crisis, as load-shedding is likely to return and new crises emerge. 

Ramokgopa has expressed his concern over the rapid deterioration of municipal distribution infrastructure.

Even though the electricity supply is stable, certain areas are still experiencing outages. He explained that the collapse of last-mile electricity distribution infrastructure is accelerating, and it is “the next front” in the electricity crisis.

The minister stated that many municipalities are illiquid and unable to meet their financial infrastructure obligations due to an eroding revenue base.

Ramokgopa and energy analyst Chris Yelland share the same concerns about an impending crisis in the electricity industry’s distribution sector.

Yelland believes that while significant progress has been made in reforming the transmission grid of South Africa’s electricity industry, there has been very little progress in reforming the distribution sector, which is mainly made up of municipalities.

Infrastructure such as local substations is often inadequately maintained or upgraded, leading to many outages and equipment failures at this level.

This issue is further compounded by the dire financial situation of many of South Africa’s municipalities, with a significant portion of them unable to pay Eskom for the electricity it provides.

Joburg sticks out

A notable example of this pending crisis is the City of Johannesburg and its power utility, City Power.

At the end of last year, City Power CEO Tshifularo Mashava told the Sunday Times that Joburg residents logged about 4,000 electrical faults with City Power per day, but it only had enough manpower to attend to 800 such issues.

Board chair Bonolo Ramokhele added that the issues with the network mainly stemmed from its age and estimated it would cost R50 billion to fix the century-old infrastructure.

The rapidly deteriorating City Power even caused outages equivalent to stage 9 load shedding through load rotation in some areas.

Load rotation, as announced by City Power, is a similar process to load shedding but on a more localised level and is typically not on a schedule – i.e. residents experience unplanned outages as the utility rotates the load between different areas.

However, during extended bouts of outages, a formal schedule can be established, as is the case in areas of Joburg.

In response to the deteriorating infrastructure and service, City Power said close to 50% of its customers owe the utility billions in unpaid bills, and this money is what is needed to fix the ailing and unreliable infrastructure.

Yelland noted that this sector at a municipal level really needs more attention now, much more attention because that is where a big crisis is brewing.

Read: Joburg wants Ramaphosa to deploy the army

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