A Return to Stage 6 Load Shedding: Not Quite Unexpected
South Africa has abruptly re-entered the realm of Stage 6 load shedding, following about a month of daytime suspension of these rolling blackouts. However, energy experts indicate that this development is far from surprising, and a potential escalation still lurks in the shadows.
Eskom, the state utility, found itself compelled to revert to Stage 6 load shedding this week in the face of a sudden surge in power demand induced by adverse weather conditions.
The Cold Front Impact: Power Demands Spike
A significant cold front swept across the country over the weekend, plummeting temperatures below zero in some regions and even resulting in an unusual bout of snowfall in Gauteng. The chilling weather led to a jump in power demand from approximately 30,000MW pre-freeze to around 34,000MW afterwards – equating to an added four stages of load shedding.
Simultaneously, Eskom’s generation capacity took a downturn from a relatively steady 28,000MW to less than 27,000MW, exerting further strain on the grid. Consequently, Eskom’s generation shortfall leaped from around 2,000MW to a staggering 7,000MW overnight, bringing back Stage 6 load shedding.
Stage 6 vs. Stage 7 Load Shedding: A Fine Line
On Wednesday (12 June), Eskom reported that a hefty 6,432MW was shed from the grid. Technically, this already translates to Stage 7 load shedding. Yet, the utility has employed mitigation strategies such as load curtailment and load limiting to retain national schedules at Stage 6.
However, this doesn’t eliminate the potential of escalating outages. Speaking to Daily Maverick and Mail & Guardian this week, Eskom cautioned that Stage 8 load shedding, or worse, could still materialize, although it remains unlikely. The key lies in maintaining supply (keeping units functional) and managing user demand.
Winter Months: Best to Worst-Case Scenarios
In its pre-winter system outlook, Eskom underscored three primary scenarios. The best-case scenario involves Eskom maintaining generation and unplanned outages or breakdowns under 15,000MW, thereby confining load shedding between stages 3 and 5 for the winter duration.
Remarkably, the actual outcome from Eskom has surpassed this optimistic scenario. The group has managed to keep outages at or below 15,000MW, suspending daytime load shedding (usually between midnight and 16:00), only escalating to Stage 3 in the evenings.
Facing the Worst-Case Scenario
According to Eskom, the worst-case scenario involves unplanned outages exceeding 18,000MW and demand surpassing 33,000MW. With the current demand at 34,000MW, the country fits squarely within this prediction on the demand side, and the load shedding escalation depends on Eskom’s ability to manage outages and supply until demand eases.
However, given Eskom’s grid’s notorious volatility, the likelihood of steering clear of higher stages of load shedding is filled with doubt.
Despite electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa’s assurances of system improvement, Eskom’s energy availability factor (EAF) hovers around 58%, a far cry from the ideal 60%. This adds another layer of complexity to Eskom’s mission to balance South Africa’s precarious power demands and supply.