South Africa’s electricity crisis has been gradually worsening over the past 15 years, and Eskom’s power generation capacity is now at its lowest in decades. The situation is so dire that energy experts predict South Africans may face stage eight load shedding this winter.
As a journalist, I am worried about the impact of Eskom’s electricity crisis on South Africa’s citizens, businesses, and the national economy. In this article, I’ll provide an overview of Eskom’s power generation mix, explain what’s failing, and detail the potential impacts on our national power supply.
Factors contributing to the crisis
The majority of Eskom’s power (74%) is generated from coal power stations, most of which are old and reaching their projected 40-year life spans. These plants are breaking down too frequently, accounting for the bulk of Eskom’s lost capacity. Additionally, newer plants, Medupi and Kusile, have been plagued with technical flaws and construction delays. One of Medupi’s units suffered a massive explosion, with repairs only set to be completed in 2024. In October 2022, Kusile experienced a catastrophic chimney collapse, with repairs due to take at least two years.
Nuclear power accounts for only 3% of national generation capacity, and two units at the Koeberg power station in the Western Cape have a total capacity of 1.8 GW. Upgrades to continue operating have been projected to take six months per unit but are already well behind schedule. This means that one unit that would normally generate 0.9 GW will be unavailable during this year’s winter months.
The remaining 13 GW (23%) of the South African power generating capacity is shared by gas, hydro, wind and solar. These primarily depend on the intermittent nature of sunshine, wind and water flow, and renewable power plants currently have a small footprint in the South African energy mix. The significant upswing in domestic solar installations and the projected completion of many new solar and wind farms in late 2024 is not yet sufficient to overcome the power deficit.
Winter power shortages
South Africans will likely experience mass power shortages this winter due to increased electrical heating device use and longer light usage. Eskom has tried to maximize the operation of its plants by scheduling plant maintenance during the warmer months, but too many plants will be out of operation for the entire winter season. Eskom’s energy generators will produce less power this year than last year, which means that rolling power cuts are the best practical way to prevent a grid collapse and total blackout.
Potential impact of a grid collapse
A national blackout could occur if the grid’s oscillating frequency drifts too far from the prescribed 50 Hertz. This would cause points along the grid, including power plants, to trip one after the other, which would result in zero electricity everywhere. Re-energizing the grid would take a slow process achieved one station at a time, with many days of economic activity lost before the full electricity supply recovers. It could also lead to fuel shortages, which in turn would affect transport and industry, and a host of facilities that use backup generators, such as hospitals, laboratories and morgues.
It’s time for Eskom to make significant improvements to ensure they can provide immediate and lasting solutions to our electricity crisis. Keeping up with maintenance and implementing tougher electricity cuts can undoubtedly prevent a grid collapse, but further intervention is necessary. I hope our government can be proactive in addressing the electricity crisis to protect our future economic prospects.