Do you know what load shedding is?
Before I came to South Africa, four years ago, I had never heard of the expression. If I had been asked its meaning, I would have probably guessed that it meant reducing the load on a truck that had become stuck, or removing cargo or passengers from a plane, in order that it could safely take-off.
In South Africa load shedding refers to the forced reduction of demand for electricity by means of rolling blackouts.
Why is this drastic measure necessary?
Due to equipment failures and essential maintenance, the supply of electricity is often not sufficient to meet the demand. New power generation is being constructed but is years behind schedule and way over budget.
To manage the power cuts, the entire country is divided up into areas, as in the map showing the areas of Cape Town. We live in Green Point, in area 7.
Once you know your area number, you need to find the load-shedding stage. There are eight stages defined, ranging from minimal impact load shedding stage 1, through to stage 8, which would entail an almost complete black-out. The highest we have experienced so far was stage 6, in mid-December of 2019. Each increase in the stage, implies an additional 1000 MW needs to be removed from the system, so in the following example of stage 4, 4,000 MW will not be available.
In the example I have given, if it is the first or seventeenth day of the month, then in area 7, stage 4 will mean that there will be no electricity during the hours 04:00-06:30, 12:00-14:30 and 20:00-22:30. It is important to be aware of the approximate scheduled times; it would not be much fun to be stuck in the dark in an elevator for two and a half hours. And be warned; never get in an elevator in South Africa with a full bladder when load shedding is imminent!
Of course, load shedding has a serious negative impact on the economy. To function, many larger businesses have had to install emergency power generators, but that increases their operational costs. Most small businesses cannot afford the extra cost of generators, so their income can be severely impacted.
ESKOM, known as the Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM) is the utility that provides about almost all South Africa’s electricity. In Afrikaans it is also known as Elektrisiteitsvoorsieningskommissie (EVKOM). It was founded in 1932 and is the largest producer of electricity in Africa. It is the largest of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises and at one time South Africa had ample power.
But after ten years of government under the corrupt presidency of Jacob Zuma and his cronies – 2009-2017, ESKOM has become a financial and operational basket case. It has been saddled with excessive debt that it may never be able to repay. It is grossly overstaffed, yet the unions and the governing ANC refuse to allow sensible re-organization. The generating plant is constantly failing, mainly due to historic lack of maintenance, which is worrying, when one considers that ESKOM has Africa’s only nuclear power station, just along the coast from Cape Town. It could be a disaster waiting to happen.
Apart from about 5% of electricity being supplied by nuclear energy, South Africa’s energy needs depend on coal fired power stations. Despite being rich in sunshine and coastal wind, the ANC government has made no effort to allow the introduction of renewable energy. No doubt the coal mining unions will continue to resist any change to the status quo and coal fired power stations will continue to pollute the South African atmosphere.
Despite the long lull during most of last year, load shedding has again returned, with many power station failures. In addition, Covid-19 has been blamed, with many maintenance workers having been infected and repair work being impacted
So, with a continuing curfew from 21:00-06:00, a renewed ban on the purchase of alcohol for the third time, the closing of schools, no access to beaches or the sea etc., and now more load shedding, public fatigue and rejection of the imposed regulations is almost inevitable.
And with no sign of mass vaccination on the horizon, this year threatens to be a repeat of 2020.