South Africa’s next electricity crisis is here

South Africa’s next electricity crisis, brought about by deteriorating municipal infrastructure, is here and has already begun to impact large parts of Johannesburg. 

In a media statement this weekend, Johannesburg’s City Power announced it had begun implementing load reduction in parts of the city due to overloaded equipment. 

It had previously warned residents of South Africa’s economic hub that it would begin cutting off electricity if they did not reduce their consumption. 

As South Africa has been plunged into a spell of cold weather, demand for electricity has shot up, putting pressure on local infrastructure. 

City Power said it had seen a 65% increase in the average evening peak load in some areas. 

While Eskom has been able to meet this increased demand so far in winter, distribution infrastructure has begun breaking under the load. 

City Power is the first utility to have to resort to load reduction, but it will not be the last as other areas of the country face similar challenges. 

It explained that electricity consumption in Joburg had surpassed critical levels, forcing it to impose measures to protect the grid from collapse. 

“These measures include intensifying the implementation of ripple relay systems to cut electricity to geysers in homes where the systems are under threat, reducing load at substations with higher consumption and those under threat, and intensifying cut-off operations against illegal connections,” City Power said.

“With temperatures expected to drop even more between June and July, the consumption levels could have dire consequences on our network infrastructure if load reduction is not urgently implemented.”

“Our network is now at critical levels due to continuous demand, which is higher than the electricity equipment can withstand.”

City Power said despite warnings to residents about the constrained electricity network, usage continued to rise.

The next front

Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa

The reform of South Africa’s electricity sector has accelerated in recent years, with Eskom set to be unbundled into three entities: Generation, Transmission, and Distribution. 

However, much of this reform has been focused on the Transmission division of Eskom as the legal separation has been completed and it has received licences for it to operate. 

This will open up the grid to private generators of electricity who can effectively compete with Eskom’s generation division to supply electricity. 

While this progress is vital to bring load-shedding to a permanent end, very little effort has been made regarding the Distribution division. 

This area of the electricity sector is largely the responsibility of municipalities and is an important source of revenue for them. 

In recent years, many outages and equipment failures have occurred at this level, exacerbating load-shedding. 

Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa warned of such a crisis at the beginning of May, calling the collapse of municipal infrastructure the “next front” in the battle against outages. 

The Minster explained that South Africa is not out of the woods regarding its electricity crisis as load-shedding is likely to make a return, and new crises will emerge. 

In a media briefing, Ramokgopa said he was particularly concerned about the rapid deterioration of municipal infrastructure, which is likely to accelerate in the future. 

This, he warned, will result in outages across the country despite a stable electricity supply. 

“We know many municipalities are illiquid and not in a position to meet their financial obligations as a result of an eroding revenue base. I think the situation is going to become acute.”

Energy analyst Chris Yelland

Energy analyst and managing director of EE Business Intelligence, Chris Yelland, said the financial situation of many municipalities compounds this issue. 

Many municipalities are unable to pay Eskom for the electricity it provides, placing it under increasing financial pressure. 

“This points to a completely dysfunctional electricity distribution sector. I do not see sufficient attention given to the reforms needed,” Yelland said. 

He said various reforms to this sector have been tried before, such as putting the responsibility for distribution into the hands of larger regions rather than municipalities. 

In effect, this would reform the electricity sector into a similar structure to South Africa’s water industry, where water boards control the bulk supply of water. 

However, Yelland said these attempts have failed and allowed the deterioration of local infrastructure to continue. 

“This sector really needs more attention now, much more attention because that is where a big crisis is brewing.” 


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