Power Outages Auckland Leave Thousands Without PowerWho would have thought even just a few years ago that one could use a smart phone to check the ‘status’ of electricity availability in the area in real-time. No worries, I am not talking about the US or Germany. Though it’s possible those countries could face power supply issues in certain regions if decommissioning of base load fossil fuel power plants in the name of climate protection is pursued without adequate planning. Unplugging fossil fuel-powered generation facilities from the grid must be done in conjunction with adequate strategic compensatory capacity measures and accompanying resilience-strengthening measures in the form of costly expansion and/or grid upgrades.

Right now, customers of the South African power utility Eskom – South Africa’s state-owned main electricity supplier – have exactly this dubious pleasure because Eskom is providing regular updates on the status of the power system on its website and Twitter. Want to get in on it? Check out the website or follow on Twitter #Loadshedding.

According to a press release on its website dated January 28, Eskom announced the implementation of controlled outages – i.e. scheduled rolling blackouts – in ‘stage 1’ load shedding mode. This is done to prevent the national grid from being overwhelmed as demand threatens to exceed supply by outstripping installed capacity. In short, a capacity deficit during peak use was about to wreak havoc. “The electricity system continues to be severely constrained, and Eskom will be implementing stage 1 load shedding from 10:00 until 22:00 today to manage dam levels at its pumped storage schemes. Implementing lower stages of load shedding throughout the week helps us prevent severe load shedding later in the week,” the respective statement reads.

This situation will not ease any time soon as Eskom adds that this “being Eskom’s maintenance season, we expect the power grid to remain constrained for the rest of the summer. Eskom calls on consumers to switch off (…) all non-essential appliances throughout the day to reduce electricity demand.”

Eskom even posted a load shedding calendar three months out on its website indicating that load shedding, or power rationing, will be a regular occurrence for some time.

Risk of Load Shedding Remains High in Near Future

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Source: Eskom via Eyewitness News (South Africa)

Daily power outages in South Africa, which is the second-biggest economy on the African continent, in order to prevent total blackouts – or to use a euphemism like ‘routine power cuts’ – have been relatively commonplace in the past, but this is the worst stretch since 2008. Moreover, recently the initiation of load shedding measures – i.e. scheduled rolling blackouts – represents “the most aggressive cuts in nine months”, according to Bloomberg. There are a plethora of reasons for that such as South Africa’s aging fleet of conventional power plants requiring extensive maintenance; rain disrupted supply of coal; or depleted water reserves and logistical issues relating to diesel supplies at critical base-load power plants.

So, why is South Africa’s power system especially vulnerable?

According to the EIA citing government data, South Africa’s nominal installed electricity capacity – based on 2013 figures – was about 45,700 megawatts (MW) with Eskom supplying about 95 per cent of South Africa’s electricity. However, the EIA points also out that “total net maximum capacity (nominal capacity minus the amount the power station uses to operate) is [actually] lower.” Now, this taken together with the fact that “South Africa’s peak demand was forecast to reach 44,005 MW in 2013” with peak demand projected to grow further “to almost 53,900 MW (…) by 2025” tells the story of what is happening in early 2015 because the underlying conditions have not changed.

Basically, Eskom has no emergency excess capacity left to put online in order to absorb any unexpected power generation outage – especially during peak times – because it is already “exceptionally close to installed net maximum capacity” and is playing catch-up on the supply side. “South Africa’s electricity system is constrained as the margin between peak demand and available electricity supply is very small,” the EIA summarizes.

Additionally, given South Africa’s poorly diversified electricity generation mix – currently “about 90% of South Africa’s generation capacity is from coal-fired power stations, about 5% from one nuclear power plant [Koeberg], and 5% from hydroelectric plants” (see older but good overview of the South African energy sector in a presentation by the South African Department of Energy) – plans to expand nuclear power generation as well as building up the still relatively small renewable electricity capacity are inevitable and, at least on paper, properly addressed in South Africa’s ‘Integrated Resource Plan 2010-2030’.

Note, the current power emergency gives a good indication that renewables such as wind and solar will not do enough to ameliorate the specific South African situation even in the long term. Environmentalists will not like to hear that, but nuclear as well as conventional base load coal-fired power plants will still be needed to meet peak loads when electricity demand grows precipitously and unexpectedly large.

According to the IEA’s WEO 2014 “Africa Energy Outlook” special report, “coal is the mainstay of the South African energy system, meeting around 70% of primary energy demand and accounting for more than 90% of domestic electricity output.” This, however, does not mean that coal’s “position in the energy mix is (…) as secure as such a dominant position might suggest,” the IEA report warns and points to deteriorating coal qualities and geological conditions in mature producing coal fields, which may necessitate the expansion of “coal supply from the more distant deposits, such as the Waterberg, located near the border with Botswana,” and along with that will also require new infrastructure, which in turn will increase “upward pressure on costs.”

Nevertheless, abandoning coal is no reasonable option and as exemplified by two significant cases of delays in bringing on new generation capacity – i.e. “two huge 4.8 gigawatts (GW) coal-fired plants at Medupi and Kusile being built by the state-owned utility Eskom” – mentioned in the IEA report, delays like these do nothing to ameliorate the innate capacity-constrained supply picture in the South African power system and should instead be fast-tracked in the government’s own interest. Consequently, South African households and businesses may need to plan around load shedding in the medium term.

What is load shedding?

Eskom, the involuntary but authoritative voice on that explains:

“When there is not enough electricity available to meet the demand from all Eskom customers, it could be necessary to interrupt supply to certain areas. This is called load shedding. It is different from a power outage that could occur for several other reasons.

It is a last resort to balance electricity supply and demand. (…) It is an effective way to avoid total collapse of the electricity supply grid (a national black-out), which will have disastrous outcomes for South Africa. If unbalances on the power is not managed this could lead to the risk of collapse of the entire power network. If this occurs, it could take more than a week to restore power to the entire country. By rotating and shedding the load in a planned and controlled manner, the system remains stable.”

Finally, check out the following exhaustive infographic created by BDO Consulting (South Africa):

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Source: BDO Consulting (South Africa) via @SA_info (SouthAfrica.info)