Inside the Reality of South Africa’s Load Shedding Stages

While South Africa’s Minister of Electricity, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, has been swift in crediting Eskom’s improved performance for the lower load shedding stages, a recent data analysis reveals a contrasting scenario at the struggling power utility.

Unraveling the Facts

Insights drawn from independent energy analyst Pieter Jordaan’s scrutiny of Eskom’s Data Portal depict the primary factors behind the unexpected lessening of load shedding in June as primarily lower consumer demand and increased renewable energy input.

Jordaan remarks, “Why did we have less load shedding in June? The two main reasons given by the utility are that there was lower power demand than expected and that they had more generating capacity available than in May; that was helped by better renewable generation.”

Although data affirms Eskom’s improved energy availability factor (EAF) (59% as compared to 50-55% in the preceding months), little else has evolved significantly.

Eskom’s Steady Performance Amid Unchanged Breakdowns

Eskom’s energy availability factor (EAF) improved notably compared to the previous months. However, the number of breakdowns remained consistently high, mirroring levels (~33%) from September 2022, when load shedding sharply escalated.

A significant alteration was a massive dip in planned maintenance, which plummeted from 14% to 7% between April and June, allowing more megawatts on the grid, typical for winter months.

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However, despite these improvements, Eskom’s overall performance isn’t dramatically different from the earlier part of the year when high stages of load shedding were constantly in effect. Compared to previous years with intermittent load shedding, the group is still underperforming.

“The key difference, then, is on the demand side,” Jordaan noted.

The Stark Reality

Contrary to expectations, winter demand remained lower than anticipated. Eskom had prepared for a base case of 34,000MW, expecting up to 37,000MW – hence the pre-winter warnings of possible stage 8 load shedding.

Unexpectedly, demand slumped to as low as 27,000MW and typically hovered under 30,000MW, reaching peaks of 32,000MW.

Jordaan elaborated on the winter demand fluctuations, “Following a week of accurate forecasting, a cold snap increased demand from a Monday evening peak of 32,000MW on 3 July to 34,000MW on 10 July. The low load-shedding levels in the prior week meant that the razor-thin capacity reserves were already breached on 4 and 5 July’s peaks.”

The Imminent Dangers

Unfortunately, Eskom is still operating on thin margins. Experts warn of the likelihood of higher stages of load shedding if the delicate balancing act falters.

Any future cold snaps – like the one forecasted this week – could potentially spike demand, forcing Eskom to deplete its reserves, increase diesel usage, and potentially escalate load shedding levels to counteract these effects. Already, on Tuesday’s peak (18 July), demand rose back up to 32,000MW, compelling Eskom to cut over 4,600MW from the grid.

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If demand can be managed, lower levels of load shedding may persist. However, as winter retreats, regular maintenance schedules will return, taking more units offline. Unless Eskom augments its generation or adds more capacity to the grid by then, load shedding will inevitably continue.

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