Energy

Eskom load-shedding miracle – with a warning 

South Africa has hit the milestone of 100 days without load-shedding – the longest streak since 2020. This was made possible by Eskom’s improved performance and private investment in renewables. 

However, some experts warn that load-shedding may return before the end of winter as demand and mining production pick up.

This miraculous reduction in load-shedding has given South Africans hope that rotational power cuts will end permanently. 

Eskom’s management team has cautioned against this, saying at the beginning of the month that it still expects some load-shedding in winter. 

The utility noted in a recent statement that its system has come under increasing pressure during the morning and evening peaks, forcing it to use its Open-Cycle Gas Turbines (OCGTs) to meet demand. 

Professor Sampson Mamphweli said Eskom’s ability to stop load-shedding is due to increased private sector investment in rooftop solar. 

The utility’s latest Weekly System Status Report shows that just over 5,565 MW of rooftop solar has been installed in South Africa. 

Mamphweli said this has greatly reduced demand for electricity during the day, crucially giving the utility leeway to build up reserves to run its OCGTs during the evening peak. 

However, the main driver behind the reduction in load-shedding is the miracle that has occurred at Eskom’s coal fleet, with its reliability improving drastically in just over a year. 

Throughout 2023, load-shedding was commonplace. Stage 6 power cuts were almost a weekly occurrence, and Eskom’s performance was erratic. Some even feared a complete grid collapse.

In addition, Eskom was tackling widespread corruption, mismanagement, and a leadership crisis, with former CEO Andre de Ruyter leaving the utility in February 2023. 

Things have changed drastically since, with Eskom’s energy availability factor (EAF) surging due to improved maintenance on its coal fleet. 

Its EAF averaged 61.3% between 1 April and 27 June 2024 – a 7% improvement compared to the same period last year. 

Eskom’s improved performance has translated into no load-shedding in South Africa for the past 100 days. This streak is compared to previous years in the graph below. 

Load-shedding will be back 

Despite this improved performance, Eskom and others have warned that load-shedding cannot be considered a thing of the past. 

While Eskom’s performance has greatly improved, its ability to suspend load-shedding has also been due to significantly reduced demand. 

Electricity demand has steadily declined in recent years as South Africa’s economy stagnated. 

The government accelerated this by lifting the cap on private generation, resulting in huge investments from companies to reduce their reliance on Eskom.

Former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank Kuben Naidoo said this reduction in demand is unlikely to be sustained indefinitely. 

He explained that South Africa’s mining sector is the country’s largest electricity consumer, and its declining output over the past two years has substantially reduced its demand for energy. 

Lower commodity demand, elevated operating costs, and logistical bottlenecks have effectively capped the mining sector’s growth and, thus, its demand for electricity. This has unintentionally helped Eskom stave off load-shedding.

“My personal view is that half of the reason we don’t have load shedding is because the mining sector is in a deep recession,” Naidoo said. 

“If you switch on the mining sector, I think load shedding will return, so we still need to continue investing in renewable energy and other energy sources to break that constraint.”

Eskom believes it can meet an increase in demand by commissioning Kusile’s Unit 5 at the end of last month, and Unit 6 is expected to come online in November.

This will add around 1,600 MW to the grid, helping the utility suspend load-shedding. However, this is not enough for Eskom to meet any rapid uptick in demand from the mining sector and industry, would it occur. 

And so, the utility has stressed that its Winter Outlook, which aimed to keep load-shedding to a maximum of stage 2, remains in force. 

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