Closing in on a grid collapse

ANTHONY BUTLER: Eskom’s handling of power cuts proves to be exceptional

Exemptions from load-shedding are often deemed impractical, except when it comes to ANC shindigs

First published in BusinessLive and Business Day

12 MAY 2023

Though a total failure of SA’s electricity system is relatively unlikely, it remains a matter of great concern. A grid collapse would shut down water and sewage treatment plants, telephone and internet services, payment systems and food supply chains. It would also be likely to bring looting and unrest.  

The fact that demand for electricity exceeds the capacity of the power grid increases the possibility of a total system collapse as a result of a cascading grid failure. Yet we still do not have a coherent policy response from the central government departments charged with responsibility for energy planning and the oversight of Eskom. 

Resources have been diverted away from the regular inspection and upgrading of power lines, transformers, substations and other critical components. Deliberate acts of sabotage and vandalism, motivated by financial gain, have been targeted at power infrastructure.  

Last week the judiciary made matters worse. Despite concerns about practicality, the high court in Pretoria ordered the public enterprises minister to take “all reasonable steps within 60 days” to stabilise electricity supply to schools, hospitals and police stations. Though the minister is appealing against the judgment, higher courts may confirm that constitutional rights to healthcare, education and justice impose just such obligations. 

Former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter pertinently warned the court that, with so many such facilities being embedded in distribution networks around the country, “were they to be excluded from load-shedding there would be very little load left to shed to reduce demand on the grid”, so presenting “a manifest risk of grid collapse or blackout”. 

New challenges concern the politicisation of grid system management. First, we have a growing problem of political exemptions from load-shedding. The ANC’s Nasrec conference in December 2022 was memorably exempted from power cuts by Johannesburg’s City Power, despite Nasrec being equipped with standby generators. ANC leaders presumably wanted to avoid the embarrassment of generators kicking in while proceedings were under way. 

Energy expert Chris Yelland has reported that the tiny seaside town of Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape has been exempted from power cuts this week because it is hosting a workshop on labour policy for delegates from the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) group of countries. The exemption was requested by the department of labour and granted by Eskom’s head office. Such an exemption is apparently illegal under the Electricity Regulation Act and it was not notified to the system operator at Eskom National Control, which is the only body authorised to allow exemptions from load-shedding. 

Since the Port Alfred venue had generators available, the key motivation, once again, would appear to be the ANC wanting to avoid embarrassment. If such exemptions proliferate the grounds for preferential and inequitable treatment will also grow, along with greater risks to the stability of the grid.  

A second key dimension of politicisation concerns party politics. We can anticipate every effort will be made to suspend load-shedding for the longest possible period in advance of the 2024  national and provincial elections, no matter what costs and system risks this might bring.  

Meanwhile, Cape Town and the Western Cape are moving ahead with initiatives to end load-shedding, using hydropower and solar generation, energy storage, buybacks from households and businesses, and voluntary energy savings. If the gulf between load-shedding experience in the Cape and the rest of the country grows, so too will the temptation to meddle in electricity system management. Any loss of trust and effective co-ordination between government entities presents a further risk factor. 

SA will become increasingly dependent on “automatic” grid protection systems that use fault detectors, relays and protective circuit breakers to identify and isolate faults, so preventing them from spreading and causing cascading failures. Such systems are themselves far from being fail-safe. 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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