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Load-shedding: cry the beloved current
It starts like any normal evening, rustling up supper while enjoying some music, perhaps looking forward to taking in a World Cup match from the comfort of your couch when you're plunged into darkness. After muttering a few choice expletives, you cue the takeaways and try to figure out how to salvage your previously lit evening.
Since late 2007, we've been victim to what Eskom has euphemistically termed “load-shedding.” Why has this happened? And what can we expect from here? Let's shed some light on the subject.
Eskom: the story of a power trip
Since 1923, Eskom has supplied the majority of our power. Today, Eskom's impressive array of coal fired plants, a nuclear plant, hydroelectric plants, oil and gas plants and some solar and wind farms account for 95% of South Africa's power supply. Eskom ranks within the top 10 energy producers in the world.
But, the largest electricity provider in Africa has not been without its fair share of controversy. An epic combination of mismanagement, bad decisions and poor judgement have resulted in a power crisis. It has been reported that government was made aware of the impending crisis, but by January of 2008 the severity of the problem was obvious and South Africa was plunged into darkness.
The causes of the problem are complex and blame can be attributed at almost every level. The government was warned as early as 1998 that investment in infrastructure was needed. Thabo Mbeki later apologised and admitted this was a mistake. Eskom is certainly not blameless, as lack of routine maintenance and proper planning have left us with an ageing and ailing set of power plants. Furthermore, qualified engineers are leaving the country and adding to our skills shortage. Relentless strike action has meant little progress on the projects that are supposed to fix the problem.
And of course, wet coal.
Load-shedding: current outlook
As we head into the winter of 2014, load shedding is already in full swing around the country. It's difficult to cut through the PR to get to the truth. Eskom leadership is notorious for issuing statements that everything is fine, right before the power goes out.
There is evidence that Eskom is taking the problem seriously. The previous CEO Brian Dames was replaced by Collin Matjila on 1 April this year. Eskom executives went without their bonuses this year. We are constantly reminded to cut down on electricity use to avoid further load-shedding.
We do know that development on two major new coal power stations is underway. The Medupi Power plant has been clouded in controversy since its inception. At an estimated R170 billion, it is a project of colossal proportions. Once finished, it will be the largest dry-cooled coal fired power station in the world. Initially, Eskom promised that the first unit would be active from the beginning of 2014. Clearly that isn't happening and there is no indication of when Medupi will be ready.
The other major power plant, Kusile is also underway. It's been hailed as an environmental disaster of monumental proportions. It's estimated capacity will be 4.8 MW or more. Kusile comes at a great cost to South Africa and our environment. In a report prepared by Greenpeace and the University of Pretoria, the real costs of these projects is examined in detail and makes for disturbing reading. Among their findings, Kusile will cost South Africa between R31.2 and R60.6 billion per year. This figure includes the water costs, health impact, environmental impact and the mining and coal transport. News on the progress at Kusile is sporadic and it is unclear when we can expect completion. The Mail and Guardian reported that Kusile would be producing electricity by December this year.
While it is common for projects of this magnitude to go over budget and over time, as Carte Blanche reported, there is little incentive for workers to produce when they are paid for striking. As Eskom spokesperson Andrew Etzinger explained in an interview with CNBC Africa, even when Medupi starts producing power, it will mean that other older power stations can go offline to receive their much needed maintenance. This means that these power plants won’t be contributing extra capacity to the grid.
There are no concrete answers as to where we stand and what our outlook is. If strike action can halt long enough for Medupi to come online, crucial maintenance can take place and then we can start to look forward to a light at the end of this tunnel. One thing is clear; it is going to be many years before our power problems are a distant memory.
Load-shedding: the bright side
Being powerless, the only thing we can control is our reaction to the situation. If load-shedding anger is getting the better of you, it might be time for a 'Powerlessness Party' to lift everybody's spirits. Of course your load-shedding shindig will mean guests must B.Y.O.P (bring your own power). Games like; Parastatal Piñata, Pass the Blame and Bobbing for Answers will all help to make light of the situation.
Important information
You can check load-shedding schedules on the Eskom website.
If you need to get in touch with Eskom:
National Sharecall 0860037566
National SMS number MTN 0836471951
National SMS number Vodacom 082 941 3707
National SMS number Cell C 084 655 5778
You can also email customer services
More about coal-fired power can be found here Greenpeace Report