The Sudden Disappearance Of Loadshedding: A Political Move Or Light At The End Of The Tunnel?

For almost two months South Africa has been free from loadshedding. The cynic in me wants to think that this is a pre-election strategy for the ruling party, but what do the numbers say? I decided to investigate.

Supply vs Demand
First, let’s look at the supply (available dispatchable generation) versus demand. Is Eskom generating more electricity than its customers require? The black line shows the generation since the beginning of 2023 while the grey line shows the demand (the line is jagged because we use less electricity on weekends). The green line shows the general trend, a gradual incline upwards, and the purple line shows the demand trend, clearly reducing over time.

So, how can we explain these numbers?

Over the past year, the Energy Availability Factor (how efficient power stations are working) has gradually improved. Eskom has attributed this to improved maintenance over the past 18 months, so the stations are running better.

Next to consider are planned and unplanned outages at power stations. The planned outages, due to planned maintenance and repairs, have gradually increased from less than 10% in 2022 to around 15% now. Unplanned outages from accidents, breakdowns, and sabotage have decreased from around 35% a year ago to 28% now. Eskom attributes the drop in unplanned outages to improved maintenance. Increased maintenance should result in fewer breakdowns.

Since September last year, significant additional generation capacity has been restored and added.

Private Sector to the rescue!
While the above numbers show an improvement from Eskom, the private sector has also had a substantial impact. South Africa imported a massive R17.5bn worth of solar panels in 2023, tripling the R5.6bn imported in 2022. An estimated 6 000MW of rooftop solar have now been installed and NERSA has registered more than 6 000MW in renewal projects.

This privately sourced electricity generation have led the decrease in demand in electricity from Eskom to the point where Eskom is now able to provide enough to meet the current demand.

Transition to renewable energy
It is estimated that by 2030 South Africa will have 32 000 MW of installed renewable energy capacity, up from just 2 700 MW a decade ago. This would propel us to the 6th largest global producer of solar power. By far the global leader, China is expected to have installed capacity of 1,200,000 MW by 2030!

South Africa currently has more than 35 wind farms operating across the country, capable of producing 3 400MW. There are currently more than 1 000MW of additional wind generation currently under construction. South Africa’s biggest wind farm is currently being built near Standerton in Mpumalanga by Sereti Resources to power their coal mining operation.

So, what next? Is the crisis over?
Unfortunately, the crisis is not completely over. Although it’s been unseasonably warm, electricity demand is expected to increase as winter sets in. Eskom is also currently running better, but any number of unplanned breakdowns or issues could occur which would drop the supply below the expected winter demand and necessitate some loadshedding. Cold weather is expected in late May (yes, just around or after the elections), so it would not be surprising if we had some loadshedding around that time.

Loadshedding should, however, be less severe than last winter, and we can easily have another long break when it warms up again in a few months. There is a huge pipeline of private sector projects in the works which will hopefully further decrease the demand for Eskom’s generation with many of South Africa’s biggest wind and solar projects currently under construction.

NERSA’s current bid window closes at the end of the month, with them requesting bids for a further 7,615 MW in renewable, gas, and battery storage.

The current network was developed to distribute power mainly from the eastern parts of the country such as Mpumalanga, so another challenge is to upgrade the distribution network which needs to distribute power from the sun and wind-rich Northern, Western, and Eastern Cape provinces.

While there are reasons for optimism, continued efforts to improve and expand energy infrastructure remain essential.