What is load shedding and why is it happening in South Africa?

Load shedding has become synonymous in the life of every South African. For 14 years, the country’s power utility – Eskom – has been implementing a complicated system of rolling blackouts on a rotating schedule.

But how did Africa’s most developed country, the only nation in the continent to ever host arguably the largest tournament on earth back in 2010 get here? The answer is two-fold. First, electricity demand has been gradually surpassing available supply. And then there is the old problem, which preceded the bouts of load-shedding, failing to improve infrastructure capacity. In fact, back in 2007, South Africa experienced one of its biggest power crises on record, and despite all the talk of solutions, none left the boardroom tables.

Despite South Africa being a nuclear power – the country even had a nuclear weapons program it abolished in 1989 – Eskom relies on coal-fired power plants to generate electricity. Increased environmental consciousness and the limited nature of coal as a raw material have led to frequent power shortages. The economic effects are devastating.

“In 2019, the figures were released that these load shedding was contributing to a 3.2% decline in GDP growth in the particular year, and that was in the first quarter. But not just that alone. The company is actually at $26 billion debt as of now, relying on the government that has been giving it handouts,” Maggie Mutesi, Managing Editor at Mansa Media Africa said.

On November 4, Eskom announced that it would be moving to Stage 4 load shedding, with Stage 2 load shedding implemented for the rest of the weekend.

The power utility said that power outages result from a shut down of its three generating units at Kendal power station, the trip of a unit each at Tutka and Matimba power stations, and the delayed return of units at Majuba and Lethabo.

“Stage 4 load shedding is necessary to stop the use of OCGT (open-cycle gas turbine) generators to preserve the remaining fuel at these power stations, which is critically low.

“There is insufficient diesel available in the country to continue generating with the OCGTs at the current rate. It is anticipated that some generating units will return to service alter today and overnight, allowing a reduction to stage 2 load shedding for the remainder of the weekend.”

Effects of load shedding

Aside from the inconvenience it causes, load shedding impacts electric and electronic devices.

“There have no doubt been many questions about how load shedding affects – possibly even damages – cell phones, geysers, decoders, modems, gate motors and other devices, as well as how you can safeguard yourself against this,” said Anneli Retief, head of Dialdirect.

Batteries, used in anything from cell phones and gate motors to alarms and backup systems, are vulnerable to load shedding. If a battery runs down completely, its lifespan is significantly shortened. In addition, manufacturer’s guarantee batteries for X-amount of charging cycles. More charging cycles caused by load shedding reduces battery life.

Devices that carry reactive loads, like fridges, tumble dryers, lawnmowers, dishwashers, washing machines, hair dryers and gate motors, normally have an electric motor that is exposed to surges when the power is interrupted. Although unprotected devices, typically very old devices, could be damaged, protective measures are normally built-in to protect electronic components against surges, so damage rarely occurs in practice.

Calls for reform

The frequent load shedding has heightened calls for Eskom chief Andre de Ruyter to relinquish the reins of the utility, though he has neglected such calls. However, public pressure is mounting for the government to take action and force through the changes needed to solve the power crisis once and for all.

“This for me, is people who are trying to escape accountability. The current chief executive incumbent is dealing with issues not different to what his predecessors had to deal with. So it is nothing out of the ordinary,” John Maseko, an engineer based in Gauteng told Mansa Media.

“People have been stealing copper cables, people have been vandalizing infrastructure, trying to extract material that have street value. And this is common occurrence. So, really, it’s a matter of the state power utility working hand in glove with public order policy officials to try and cap the sketch.”

The loss of productivity due to power failure has led to a loss of revenue as well as unplanned operation expenditures across industries and their value chains. Small, medium and micro enterprises, which are the lifeblood of the country and provide employment to more than 8 million South Africans, have been impacted the most, with estimates that the economy could have lost nearly $1.6 billion the last three weeks.

“If the cost of production is high, they are going to increase the cost. It increases the cost of sale, and therefore their selling price is going to be high. If it’s high, then it means those who have the means of production are going to continue to lead to make more money, well as the ones who do not have, will continue to be plunged into the darkness of poverty,” said Maseko.

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