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Load shedding: Here’s what happens to South Africa at Stage

Load shedding is threatening to bring South Africa to its knees, with the frequency and severity of cuts rapidly increasing. Here’s a hypothetical look at what will happen at Stage 8 – Eskom’s most daunting predicament.

Note: This article was originally published on 12 February 2019. It has been republished after Eskom announced Stage 6 load shedding on Monday 9 December 2019.

Nobody can tell for sure what will happen in the event of full electrical meltdown. If the power grid does suffer a catastrophic failure, South Africa will be plunged into a protracted darkness which could take days to remedy – during that time, apocalyptic scenes have the propensity to manifest.

Eskom, the nation’s embattled power utility, has no public protocol relating to a meltdown. It’s load shedding schedule only accounts for Stage 8 rotational cuts. In essence, Stage 8 load shedding is as close to a complete national blackout as it gets.

What is Stage 8 loading shedding?

To begin with, load shedding is implemented protocol which serves to protect the stability of the national power grid during times of severe strain. When Eskom is unable to meet the nation’s demand for energy it implements power rationing – load shedding – which reduces the load on the grid by cutting electricity to suburbs, towns and villages. In this way, Eskom is able to manually reduce demand to match its capacity.

Recently, Eskom’s operational capacity has been hit by one disaster after the next. Load shedding, which made an ugly reappearance towards the end of 2018, is fast becoming a South African staple – with disastrous effects on the lives of citizens and the economy at large.

Eskom, which has been embattled by corruption, mismanagement and malfeasance has put the latest bout of rolling blackouts down to ‘planned’ and ‘unplanned’ maintenance. The utility previously reported that a coal shortage coupled with a wholly ineffective power plant upkeep plan drastically reduced its operational capacity.

At present, Eskom has installed generation capacity of 45 000MW. Worryingly, the utility is failing to meet a peak demand of 27 000MW, as demonstrated by the recent implementation of Stage 4 load shedding. This means that around 40% of Eskom’s generating capacity is unavailable.

Eskom blames the collapse of seven vital generating units for the recent electric calamity, which struck South Africa at midday on Monday. While some of these units have been resuscitated, the grid still remains unstable. Eskom has since dropped the load shedding schedule back to Stage 3 while noting that, at any moment, the loss of critical infrastructure could plunge South Africa further into darkness.

Stage 8 – the worst-case scenario – allows for 8 000MW to be shed from the grid. This is double the amount allocated to Stage 4. Under Stage 8 load shedding, some suburbs and towns could expect to be left in the dark for up to 12 hours per day – although this amount could vary according to municipal suppliers and allocations.  

No need to wait for Stage 8

According to expert energy analyst and director of EE Publishers, Chris Yelland, the practical application of Stage 8 may be a misnomer. According to Yelland, the power grid could collapse under strain long before Eskom announces Stage 8 load shedding. Yelland explains:

“Grid stability will be a major concern – even before needing to shed 8 000MW. It’s possible that uncontrolled blackouts could result from the strain.”

Yelland also explained that if Stage 8 load shedding was properly implemented, without the grid collapsing, it would be the closest South Africa comes to a national blackout. At Stage 8, grid instability could throw manual load shedding out of the window. Yelland explains that this would result in chaos:

“At the moment, manual load shedding means that areas are being cut according to a schedule. If the grid suffers severe sudden strain, automatic cascading cuts will inevitably lead to a national, or at least regional, blackout. The question is, how far can one push load shedding [before it becomes impractical and inefficient]?”

What to expect from Stage 8 load shedding?

In addition to the immediate grievous damage to the economy – which is estimated to soar well beyond the unspent energy calculation of R1 billion per Stage per day – Stage 8 will undoubtedly plunge South Africa into social chaos. Critical infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and industries, will be hard-pressed to remain functional. Yelland explains that although these vital operations are expected to remain powered by Eskom during ‘normal’ load shedding schedules – Stage 8 is a step into the unknown. Yelland states:

“It’s not easy to isolate vital infrastructure [from the effects of severe load shedding]. Load shedding is generally disruptive to peoples lives and to the economy, but [under regular scheduling] is not insurmountable. Yet, uncontrollable blackouts will threaten operations [previously excluded from rotational load shedding].”

A shutdown of hospitals, schools, businesses and industries would result in bedlam. With no access to adequate healthcare, fatalities would undoubtedly soar. Even Yelland, who admits that he is not in a position to accurately hypothesise on the social disruptions which would envelop the country during a nationwide blackout, says:

“I can imagine there will be looting and civil unrest. A State of Emergency, which is implemented by the government to restore law and order, to assist people in distress, I can see how that could be [put in place].”

Eskom has its own emergency protocol which is controlled by the system’s operator. If the grid encounters a cataclysmic event and Eskom is unable to lighten the load with scheduled rotational cuts, a decision will be taken to protect workers operating in mines. Mines will be shut down while Eskom attempts to restore stability to the grid. This will have further disastrous effects on the country’s economy.

Ronald Chauke, the Portfolio Manager for Energy representing the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) explained that Stage 8 load shedding would be an unprecedented catastrophe, saying:

“[Stage 8] would be catastrophic to the manufacturing, agriculture, mining, commercial and residential sectors. It would be unprecedented as we only reached 4000MW being loadshedded in early 2014.  This will be tantamount to economic sabotage and there would be chaos on the road and almost 60% of the country will be in darkness.”

Chauke advised that hospitals and other essential services should have a backup power supply, not having to rely on Eskom during these uncertain times. On the issue of civil unrest and socioeconomic disturbances, Chauke said:

“Most people will be without electricity for prolonged periods and crime will escalate when darkness engulfs the residential areas. Cost of living will increase as fridges will be offline and some broken. People will have to buy food on a daily basis, which is unaffordable. The cost of purchasing alternative power will also increase to the disadvantage of most people and the poor will be mostly affected.”

If civil unrest spirals out of control, which it has the propensity to do during a national blackout, the government may institute a State of Emergency in order to save the lives of citizens and restore some semblance of control. Under a State of Emergency, the South African National Defence Force [SANDF] will most likely be deployed to quell public dissidence, protect national keypoints and subdue any riotous action. It’s not farfetched to imagine that a curfew will be put in place and enforced by law.

Likelihood of Stage 8 load shedding

Hopefully South Africans never have to experience Stage 8 load shedding. Unfortunately, Eskom’s unparalleled failures leave a country hanging on tenterhooks – unsure of what the future might hold. It’s likely that emergency protocols will be implemented before Eskom ever reaches a position whereby it needs to implement Stage 8 load shedding.

Still, the fact that Eskom’s own version of DEFCON 1 exists means that it is a possibility – no matter how unlikely – and that is very, very frightening.

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Tags: electricityEskomload sheddingSouth Africa