In South Africa, an electricity network on the verge of collapse


The electricity grid of Africa's leading industrial power is on the verge of collapse. South Africans have already spent most of the southern winter juggling power cuts. Usually two to four hours a day. They learned to do with, or rather without. Sunday, September 18, the crisis took on a whole new dimension. After an endless series of damage, the public electricity company Eskom has announced the implementation of a practically unprecedented level of load shedding, while its energy production capacities are reduced to a trickle.

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In Johannesburg, electricity is cut nearly ten to twelve hours a day. “We apologize to South Africans”, Eskom boss André de Ruyter said during an emergency press conference shortly after the announcement. Already partially deprived of its Koeberg nuclear power plant (south-west), one of the pillars of the network, due to a mechanical breakdown, the company had to resolve to implement level 6 load shedding, out of 8 , following a new damage in one of its coal-fired power stations.

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They have become legion: in just seven days, from September 3 to 11, Eskom had to deal with more than forty breakdowns on its aging fleet, forcing the company to reduce its production capacity by 50%. “It is a fact that most of our power plants are not in good condition”, acknowledged the company's chief operating officer, Jan Oberholzer, during the conference. Most of South Africa's coal-fired power stations, most of which are around 40 years old, have long suffered from a lack of maintenance, against a backdrop of massive corruption and disastrous management.

Chronic shortage

Eskom has become the totem of the large-scale corruption that marked the tenure of the previous President of the Republic, Jacob Zuma, between 2009 and 2018. strict maintenance which keeps the system under pressure by permanently reducing production capacities. In this context, each breakdown that is added to these maintenance interventions strains the situation a little more.

The only solution to avoid overloading the system: offload the network by depriving certain geographical areas of electricity

To compensate for the damage, the operational units are pushed to the extreme, risking in turn breaking, given their age. “It is important to understand that these multiple failures put the system under pressure (…). This means that the remaining units have to run at full capacity and minor faults become problematic, which has caused numerous breakdowns over the past week”said Jan Oberholzer.

The only solution to avoid overloading the system in the face of these breakdowns is to offload part of its load from the network by depriving certain geographical areas of electricity in turn. Faced with these power cuts since 2007, South Africans are used to this chronic shortage. Since the beginning of the year, the country has suffered more than a hundred days of load shedding, at all levels. But rarely has the situation been so critical. Only twice, in June 2022 and December 2019, has Eskom had to resort to the cut-off level currently implemented.

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The company is up against the wall: faced with the multiplication of breakdowns over the past fortnight, it has been forced to dip into its emergency energy reserves, which are now almost dry. While the situation remains very tense, it becomes imperative to bail them out to avoid a total collapse of the network. "If the relief supplies are dry and you need them, it's a disaster"warned the chief operating officer of Eskom.

Maintenance

The disastrous situation of the company on the technical level also weighs on its finances. To compensate for unavailable generation capacity, Eskom uses gas turbines fueled by hydrocarbons. With soaring oil prices, the company is burning cash at an incredible speed: since January, it has spent 7.7 billion rand (434 million euros) on diesel. “This is our budget for the year”, said André de Ruyter. Problem: the finances of the company, indebted to the tune of 400 billion rand, are also in the red.

In the same way, to relieve the network, Eskom has announced that it intends, in the coming days, to buy – at a high price – electricity from private producers. To give itself some fresh air and proceed calmly with the maintenance of its production units, the public electricity company has been imploring the government to build new production capacities for several years: “We're doing the best we can with the system we have, but ultimately we need new capabilities to fill the gap. »

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In the meantime, André de Ruyter called on South African individuals and companies to be sober, taking Europe as an example: “The billboards have been turned off, the lighting of the Eiffel Tower is reduced in order to save energy. We ask South Africans to do the same.”, did he declare. Already suffocated by unemployment and soaring prices – those of gasoline in particular – the latter welcomed Eskom's announcement with dismay. In the townships, where power outages sometimes take months to repair, angry protests regularly erupt over failing utilities.

At the other end of the spectrum, in wealthy neighborhoods, more and more individuals are opting for solar energy. Load shedding is seriously affecting a struggling South African economy. According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a South African public research institute, power cuts would have cost South Africa up to 120 million rand in 2020. Traveling to London, the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who was to go to the United Nations General Assembly in New York after attending the funeral of Elizabeth II on Monday, September 19, has advanced his return to South Africa due to the situation.

On Monday, Eskom announced the return, from midnight, to a slightly lower load shedding level (level 5), which still means eight to ten hours of power cuts per day.

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