According to independent energy analyst Pieter Jordaan, South Africa’s power grid came dangerously close to pushing a new record for load shedding after he noted increasing cases of “ration creep” following the sudden escalation to stage 6 outages in November.
Processing the latest plant performance and power data published by Eskom, Jordaan said that Black Friday (24 November) almost became “national blackout Friday” as the national power utility’s emergency reserves were tapped dry, and there was no pumped storage to back up the grid.
This resulted in the sudden onset of stage 6 load shedding – which would linger for the week that followed.
However, Jordaan noted that his own experience of outages on the day matched many other reports – instances of “ration creep”, where load shedding lasted longer than the planned schedules, started cropping up throughout the weekend, sometimes for an hour longer than indicated.
While Eskom has never moved past stage 6 load shedding on an “official” or “national” basis, many energy experts and analysts have argued that outages have far exceeded these levels in a practical or ‘real-world’ experience.
Energy expert Chris Yelland recently noted that many people, including his family in Craighall Park, experience 12 hours of load-shedding daily.
This does not even include outages as a result of load shedding, where equipment and infrastructure break, leading to faults and other issues keeping households in the dark for much longer.
“The level of load-shedding of ten to twelve hours per day that we are experiencing is stage 8 load-shedding,” Yelland said.
“I know for a fact there are certain municipalities that are load-shedding certain areas differently to others – you may say in a discriminatory fashion.
“So, it is happening where some areas experience higher load shedding stages than what is public knowledge,” he said.
According to Jordaan, the draining of emergency reserves and the loss of pumped storage over the weekend of 24 November edged South Africa toward a national escalation beyond stage 6, which remains a political and psychological barrier for load shedding.
“Eskom had no more emergency resources with which to defend the increased demand, and the psychological stage 6 barrier meant that ‘ration creep’ was the only way out,” he said.
“Normally, in a major crisis episode, one would pick up an incursion into the 2.2 GW reserve, but there were no reserves to incur into – as these were already depleted.”
Fortunately for Eskom, the stage 6 load shedding and subsequent week of chaotic load shedding shifts (something which is still ongoing) helped the utility balance the supply gap and restore some semblance of stability.
“Decreased supply against static demand did not increase blackouts due to frequent schedule changes that increased the load shedding yield,” Jordaan said.
Looking at the data for week 48 (ending 3 December), unplanned outages dipped slightly below the 30% level where it has been stuck for the past few weeks, but this served no real benefit to energy availability due to a sharp increase in planned maintenance.
Demand on the grid is higher than in previous years and the historic trend. This is likely due to the hotter weather, with Eskom noting previously that the heatwave hitting the country is leading to more use of aircon.
Demand also typically ramps up leading into the festive season – though this is happening earlier than usual.
A combination of all these factors means energy availability is stagnant, with EAF sitting at around 55% – still a long way off from the 65% target the government has set to be achieved by March 2024.