Demands linked to a legal battle concerning the constitutionality of load-shedding can result in a total national blackout, former Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter warned.
The North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria started hearing a legal case brought by 19 applicants against Eskom, President Cyril Ramaphosa, and others to declare load-shedding unconstitutional.
The applicants include the UDM, Action SA, the IFP, BOSA, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu).
There are two parts to the case. The first part was heard last week, and the second part is set to be heard in May.
- The applicants want certain sectors, including hospitals, schools, police stations, water facilities, small businesses, and communication networks, to be excluded from load-shedding.
- The applicants want the president, ministers, and the South African government to be held responsible for load-shedding and its impact on society.
The applicants also want the government to be forced to table a plan to end load-shedding, which they said cost the country R338-billion over the last decade.
In the first part, the applicants ignored a warning from De Ruyter that trying to exempt specific sectors of the economy and crucial social services can lead to a national blackout.
It sounds great to make hospitals, schools, telecoms networks, police stations, water facilities, and small businesses load-shedding free.
However, excluding these facilities from power cuts is not trivial and will put the South African electricity grid at tremendous risk.
The former Eskom CEO explained that these facilities are embedded in distribution networks containing other residential and non-residential loads.
To exclude them from load-shedding, you must exclude the other customers who share those distribution networks.
“To continue to supply an embedded customer with electricity requires continuing to supply all the other upstream customers on the distribution line as well,” he said.
Eskom prevents a total grid collapse and national blackout by balancing electricity supply and demand.
If the electricity supply must be maintained to exempted facilities and those who share the grid with them, there will be far more severe load-shedding elsewhere on the grid.
“The sheer number and geographical distribution of facilities they seek to exclude from load-shedding would effectively mean that there can be no load-shedding in the country,” he said.
“This presents a dire risk for South Africa, as Eskom implements load-shedding as a measure of last resort to prevent a power system blackout.”
De Ruyter warned that excluding the proposed facilities “presents a manifest risk of grid collapse or blackout”.
“How long such a blackout would last is impossible to predict with any certainty. The consequences of such a blackout would be catastrophic.”
During a blackout, people can expect the loss of water supply and sewerage treatment, the shutdown of telephone and internet services, and petrol and diesel shortages.
Digital platforms, including payment platforms and automatic teller machines, will stop running, and there will be a shortage of hard currency.
There will be chaos on the roads, shops and residents will struggle to keep produce fresh, and food supplies will be impacted. There is also a high risk of looting, vandalism, and public unrest.
“Self-evidently, a blackout is a risk South Africa cannot afford to take,” De Ruyter said. “During the period of a blackout, the country would suffer immense human and economic harm.”
A better solution
De Ruyter said Eskom was working with government departments and National Treasury to find solutions to protect vulnerable facilities and institutions from load-shedding.
However, it is impossible to use a single technological solution to serve the needs of all these facilities.
It is because different configurations and infrastructure are used in distribution networks around the country.
There are also a variety of electricity supply needs of different customers and disparities in the resources that may be available.
“Eskom is, therefore, working with different departments and customers seeking protection from load-shedding,” De Ruyter said.
The power utility is working with public hospitals, agri-food producers, and other customers to assess their needs and determine the optimal solutions on a case-by-case basis.
This is done “while keeping in mind the overall duty to ensure that any exemptions granted are done rationally, equitably, and without compromising the integrity of the grid overall”.
De Ruyter’s proposal aligns with the applicants’ alternative to order the government to implement measures to ensure that these sectors will have electricity during load shedding.
Localised backup solutions, like solar power and battery backup, will remove the risk of a blackout and provide electricity security during load-shedding.