Is it called power interruption these days?

I despair!!! While out visiting clients in the Meadowvale/Meadowbrook/Wilbart/Edenvale/Germiston suburbs of Gauteng recently the whole area was abuzz with the sound, or should I say annoying noise, of generators humming away and the crisp winter air was permeated with the smell of diesel.

“Load shedding?” I asked one client. “Not sure,” he said “but it happens at least once a week and has been the situation for a number of months, so this is why we eventually invested in a generator. We were experiencing too many disruptions and staff were becoming very frustrated,” he continued.

When I returned to my office and my trusty computer, I was greeted with the following headline report in the Daily Maverick newsletter:

Loadshedding, never again
President Zuma has assured South Africans that load shedding is history. During a visit to Eskom’s Megawatt Park, Zuma stated “Now I am going to tell people there will never be any load shedding, I have been here, I have seen it…”

Zuma just happened to be uttering these words while at Megawatt Park at exactly the same time as the aforementioned suburbs, less than 15 kilometres away, were without power.

Zuma’s confident utterings are backed up by Brian Molefe, Eskom’s CEO, and Lynne Brown, the minister of public enterprises, who have both repeatedly stated that loadshedding is unlikely this winter, while interruptions in the supply of electricity to consumers might still occur. These interruptions may be caused by equipment failure, cable theft or insufficient generation.

According to a recent press release from Eskom, the power utility reports that it has a total installed generation capacity of 45 GW. This excludes the two GW from renewable sources, which the Independent Power Producers (IPP) office says is already operational. Khulu Phasiwe, the power utility’s spokesperson, says that Eskom generates according to demand plus a bit more to provide a reserve margin. Demand is now slightly over 31 GW and generation, excluding the OCGTs (the expensive-to-run open cycle gas turbines), is 34,8 GW.

These figures tend to reassure us that loadshedding is unlikely this winter.

But here’s the catch: Although there may be plenty of electricity generation, is the transmission and distribution infrastructure in good enough shape to cope with the additional demands that can be anticipated in winter?

Many of South Africa’s suburbs have experienced power interruptions in recent weeks. The reason for these interruptions is always the same – distribution transformers and/or cabling faults. It seems that many metros and municipalities have not increased the capacity of their electrical distribution equipment in line with the increasing demand caused by an influx of people, additional electrification and the ever-increasing number of shopping malls and housing estates.

So yes, Mr Zuma it is correct to say that loadshedding will never happen again in South Africa – at least not in the short term and not in the manner many of us have become accustomed to in recent years. This is purely as a result of the fact that current demand is down because many of the high end users in industry, such as the mines, are not running at full capacity. Many South Africans have also been proactive and are now adhering to saving consumption wherever possible. We have no choice in the matter because the cost of electricity has risen rapidly and is also extremely high.

But now we have to contend with power interruptions, which in my opinion are far worse because they are more regular, could last longer than loadshedding, and could have been avoided if better maintenance plans had been addressed.