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A nationwide blackout and other myths busted

Help in understanding the crisis …
Eskom's choice of which stage to load shed is informed by a demand forecast and a supply forecast, it is not arbitrary. Picture: Nadine Hutton, Bloomberg

Every time load shedding rears its disruptive head, chatter rattles across WhatsApp groups in South Africa. “After Stage 4, comes a nationwide blackout”, or the more vanilla “We’re heading towards one”, is the gist of these messages. In times of crisis – especially with questionable crisis communication from government and Eskom over the past week – humans tend to create their own ‘reality’, whether grounded in fact or not.

The myth of a nationwide blackout

The risk of a nationwide blackout exists – as it does in any power system, especially one run by a single operator – but it is a very small one. When there is a mismatch between supply and demand, the risk increases (but still remains low). 

Load shedding, in other words, the forced reduction of demand, is a method implemented deliberately to manage the mismatch. Schedules are published all the way to Stage 8 – which the National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa) forced Eskom to do – and there are contingency plans in place to remove load beyond even Stage 8, where 8 000 megawatts (MW) is removed from the national grid. Effectively, Eskom will keep removing 1 000MW of demand in a methodical and managed manner until the system is in balance.

This does not mean longer outages, rather more frequent outages (depending on whether the distributor cuts for four or two hours at a time).

If a utility does nothing when there is a mismatch, it could easily lead to a blackout. By the way, referring to load shedding as ‘rolling blackouts’ is not accurate; they are (intentional) brownouts.

The myth that Eskom can choose the stage of load shedding 

Based on anecdotes alone, many South Africans seem to think Eskom can arbitrarily choose the stage of load shedding. While it technically does make a choice, that choice is informed by a demand forecast and a supply forecast (neither of which is entirely accurate, but the variance is typically low single-digit percentages). It calculates its forecast shortfall, and that informs how much demand needs to be reduced. 

A 2 000MW operating reserve – which it maintains at all times – ensures that it has the headroom to react during the day and night if units trip suddenly.

The myth of load shedding for 5/7/10 hours

Large areas of Johannesburg were without power for over 10 hours this weekend (some complexes for days!) due to transformer outages. Automatically, residents and businesses assumed that they were “being load-shed” for that period. The truth is that load shedding took place when it was scheduled to take place. Late restoration due to faults, trips or other issues is an entirely separate issue. An ageing City Power network, especially in certain parts of the metro, means that cutting and restoring load is not as simple as it should be.

(There is yet another separate – but important – issue: electricity grids, transformers and substations aren’t designed to be switched on and off continuously, but what choice do we have?)

The myth that renewable energy has caused this

Renewable projects, brought on stream via the Department of Energy’s independent power producer (IPP) bid windows, have helped – not hindered – the situation. The total capacity from these sources is over 5 000MW, but not all of this is necessarily available at all times. The 1 005MW from the Avon and Dedisa gas peaking plants is generally available. The remaining sources, primarily solar and wind, contribute capacity to the grid but certainly not in the same way that, say, a 600MW coal-fired unit does. At Tuesday’s briefing by public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and Eskom chair Jabu Mabuza, the latter said bluntly that “IPPs are not the source of the problem”. Whatever Eskom spends on buying power from IPPs, it recoups (via pass-through tariffs).

The myth that it’ll be a lot worse in winter

The assumption by many this weekend was that if Eskom was battling to meet demand on a ‘quiet’ Saturday in summer, “imagine” how much worse it’ll be during winter. There are two problems with this assumption.

First, that a wholly unexpected crisis caused by the loss of transmission lines in Mozambique (and with it 1 100MW) was the new normal. Second, it assumes that the generating capacity of Eskom will remain the same during winter. This is not the case, given that Eskom schedules the majority of its planned maintenance during summer months to give it the headroom in winter to run as many of its units as practically possible.

Eskom currently has around 5 000MW of capacity out due to planned maintenance. In winter, that drops to 2 000MW. The problem is that demand at peak jumps from the current 27 000-28 000MW level to a level of 33 000-34 000MW. Eskom has to drive down unplanned outages and partial load losses (and have enough diesel available) to keep the lights on during winter. This was crystal clear from Tuesday’s briefing by Gordhan and Mabuza.

The myth that Eskom has no competent people

Eskom, believe it or not, still has a lot of intelligent engineers and hard-working people inside the organisation. I’ve met many of them over the years, and remain in contact with some. Of course, repeated analyses show that Eskom is overstaffed by a significant number of employees, but conflating that with the competency of those in critical positions (especially operational ones) is misguided.

Remember, this is an organisation with roughly as many employees as any of the country’s major banks. It is massive! If there were no ‘competent’ people at Eskom, we would have a whole lot less electricity than we have now.

Gordhan addressing the media on Tuesday

Hilton Tarrant works at YFM. He can still be contacted at

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…..,what is not a myth is Eskom is managed by fools

The minister Pravin Gordhan most be feeling like an adult in a grade 0 classroom at eskom.

We seem to get nothing from any money put into eskom.

Plenty of rumours going round of employed staff that were employed simply to pay a percentage of their salary to people who helped employ them.

Wonder how many ghost workers are are at eskom?

Ghost workers and Consultants in every govt. dept.

More like Gordhan is feeling like a pill rolling chemist (not an industrially useful one) in a room of engineers, Because, duh for him, he is. Clueless.

I would be much more likely to believe your report on the risks faced if and the contention in the statement that Eskom has many able people working there, if it were not the case that maintenance was allowed to drop to the point of breakdown, especially when the top brass admitted they were surprised at the state of deterioration in the condition of leaking boiler tubing. This has to be a known risk in power generation from steam and the fact that it has been raised as a major problem is itself a real problem.
This together with the scale of outdated plants still being in service and running at more than optimal loads, must mean we are very near to reaching a cliff, if only because we don’t have the reserves to shut plants down easily for overdue scheduled maintenance. To claim that they schedule maintenance to prevent downtime is clearly nonsense as they have not, by their own admission, complied with this basic requirement. Having a maintenance policy is one thing, but not carrying it out is negligent at best and probably catastrophic under the current situation. If the engineers had been worth their salt they should have publically raised cain and made the country aware of the dangers, but no-one in the know blew the whistle in time.

Politicians have planed the game of shifting focus for years. We as general public get hocked to a present talk at that particular time.

My question is this. What are they doing now requiring this to shift our attention?.

Could be that this is not a diversion but Stage 1 of a plan to declare a state of emergency ahead of an election. Just speculating.

Hilton, technically speaking it’s a blackout not a brownout. A brownout is when the voltage drops for a minutes or hours. It’s intentional or unintentional. The important point is that during a brownout the power is never out. A blackout happens when the power goes out. Off. Zilch. Niks. Only some member of media call it a brownout when they should call it a blackout. Blackouts are intentional or intentional.

Self-serving greedy ones at that.

“…referring to load shedding as ‘rolling blackouts’ is not accurate; they are (intentional) brownouts.”

This is not true. Hilton someone’s been feeding you porky pies. A brownout is a reduced supply of power resulting in not a failure of power, but power is still delivered, albeit at a lower voltage. this causes reduced luminosity from incandescent lights, hence the name. The origin of the term is North American.

Fact: load shedding causes power blackouts (= no voltage) in affected areas. Don’t let Eskom lie to you.

Agreed, there is a lot of hysterics doing the rounds on social media.

But fact is, a week ago people would have laughed off stage four for this week. Stuff happens and at 550 liters of diesel per week I no longer believe assurances that this crowd can prevent or react to stuff.

Indeed true that most of the noise is made by those who understand very little of complexities of the situation.

Hilton, I fear that your skills assessment falls somewhat short. There are no doubt truly magnificent people still working at Eskom. Probably hundreds if not more than a thousand. Trouble is, you need 30,000 competent and committed people to turn things around. You simply don’t have a fraction of them, nor do you have the ability to draw back the good ones you lost during the decades of cadre deployment.

Maybe, maybe, same for SAA, Denel and Transnet etc. But, fish rot, incompetence and thieving starts at the top.

I suppose what Hilton is trying to say is “cheer up it could be worse”. Likely though, it will get worse. But also in a backhanded way, Hilton is maybe trying to explain that small business, home owners, etc must pay the price to keep bloated big business going; Toyota, SASOL etc as well as keeping the lights always on for free in Zim and maybe Soweto.

I’m sure there are a lot of folks that would put their hands up and volunteer to assist in sorting this mess out – the ANC needs to swallow its pride and change its attitude. If there are folks at Eskom that are playing silly buggers they need to find them and put them in orange overalls.

Thanks Hilton – very informative – with sharing with contacts who keep sharing those WhatsApp messages. . .

Watch the assassins and scaremongers come out to blitz Tarrant for daring to present a different perspective from their own.

Maybe Hilton could advise the rest of us NOT drinking the Eskom/Nersa/Luthuli House Koolaid just when Pravin and Cyril are going to CUT the power supply to the tens of MILLIONS of illegal electricity thieves here in Candlezania? I’m advised that Soweto alone is in arrears on its power bill to the tune of AT LEAST R8bn and counting (Not a myth Hilton)The Lord alone knows what the rest of the Power Pirates owe us METERED and compliant power consumers.
Call again when you have the answer to the above query pal, in the meantime, I for one as a thinking adult FULLY expect a massive UNANNOUNCED national electricity outage loooong before winter kicks in buddy.I live in the REAL South Africa.
PS. Could Hilton kindly direct some competent welders to his local power station to repair the hundreds of cracks in its boiler tubes. Seems that this itty bitty prob has been kinda overlooked for about five years or so.

Well said Sir D. Share your sentiments exactly. Just smoke and mirrors to hide the approaching cliff. Every day ANC give different more confusing explanations. Fact is ANC stuffed Eskom beyond repair.

PS: Maybe Hilton can do another sunshine piece on myths about the broken and bankrupt RAF also featured today.

But hey, CR says “we are the only party that can fix the problem” Never gonna happen.

Optimism certainly has its place in getting darker South Africa, but maybe Hilton wrote a sponsored piece.
Fact is we have 45+ GW installed capacity in Eskom and they cannot consistently produce 30 GW.
No room for positive spin in those facts.

#excellent – well said. as a prepaid client I really want to explode when they load shed me – after tonight we’ll be on 15 hours. And the wonderful folks at Ekurhuleni are so useless that they miss the allotted time by 15/30/45 minutes then run over by about 20 minutes just for the fun of it. the ANC has proven that it can’t govern, it can’t keep its hands off the tax money and it has no CLUE as to what the words regular/on-going maintenance mean – they are like the taxi drivers, drive it like a demon, then when it dies, you walk away and get a new one….

The courts have ruled that no area may be cut off as this will jeopardize people that do pay.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that areas perceived as opposition wards are hit harder with load shedding. For example in Johannesburg northern suburbs up to two 4-hour slots per day every day. In Pietermaritzburg not every day for two hours. What is happening in Soweto and Tembisa?

According to the EskomSePush App for load shedding:
Stage 4 Soweto gets 4 hours some days and 6 for some.
Stage 4 Cape Town is 7,5 hours every time.
Does not seem to be a consistent model.

I believe that Soweto owes Eskom R17 billion …. never to be seen again.

Eskom is overstaffed by about 60%, yet most of these load shedding issues hinge around bad maintenance. That proves that the Eskom staff are incompetent. Unproductive staff should all be laid off. Government should take a strong stand against the unions who threaten with action. (but they will not, they rely on the votes)
90% of SA’s economic problems are due to BBBEE and the unions.

Strong stance in an election year? Even without looming elections they are way too cosy and waste taxpayers’ money by letting militant unions run loose. Dream on.

Hilton, this is quite a change-around from your article “What Eskom isn’t telling us.” I don’t understand your myth-defying theory around the winter months possible loadshedding. If Eskom’s total capacity is 46.3 GW (best case scenario) is running optimally at 67% (best case scenario available generation capacity), that still only leaves just over 31 GW. If 2 GW is lost to the winter planned maintenance, from the really inflated 29 GWs left, there is a shortfall of 4 GW. Also, what do you think the chances are that increased maintenance will not be needed come winter, specifically caused by the switching of breakers and transformers during load shedding cycles? Can you imagine where the shortfall will be lying if the efficiencies are lower, maintenance increases etc?

It seems that Hilton knows as much about electrical engineering (yes I am one) as the executives in charge of Eskom. Figures – that where his spin is coming from.

Sorry Hilton this situation is NOT defensible. Even if you did see someone in the corridors of Eskom who told you he/she was an engineer.

Come on! The situation IS bad, and inexcusable. In any failing organisation there are always good competent people – and we appreciate and thank them for keeping Eskom “ploetering” along. In any modern economy electricity should be a given; not something we hope for. There needs to be a total cleansing and it needs to start at the political level where this mess oroginated, and filter down to not only this but all the SOE’s. Unfortunately indications are that our voters will once againg favour the perpretators of the current mess.

I am reminded of those musical movies:

“Fiiive … … six ….. … seven … … eight”

Thanks for the perspective, Hilton. It appears to be death by a thousand cuts instead of a single blow from an axe. A cruel and unnecessary fate nonetheless. While everyone is (understandably) so preoccupied with Eskom there are any number of other calamities coming to a head. Water, sewerage, roads, healthcare etc etc. The goose is thoroughly cooked by now.

“..Eskom, believe it or not, still has a lot of intelligent engineers and hard-working people inside the organisation”

Are these the ones who will be forced to take early retirement so that the precious BEE targets won’t be affected?

Whew what a relief. We won’t lose the grid, we’ll just spend half the day without electricity. …

And not just any half, the half in which we are meant to be working and productive…

Watch drops in tax revenue kick in soon.

If i owned a food chain, with cold storage or any fresh ingredients. Start writing it off quickly due to load shedding. I didnt make any profits as I kept losing all my ingredients…

I cannot recall how many times the DA tried to get Zuma out of parliament, through a vote of no confidence? What I do however remember is that all the big Bras, including the guy who pushed personal income tax rates for individuals up to 45%,communist Gordhan and all his palls did not vote against ZUMA, otherwise they would have ousted him on the first try! As far as I am concerned they all knew about the luting that was taking place, they should all be held accountable and yet not one has gone to jai, no everything in this country is under investigation! Stop paying your taxes people, Helen when are you starting your: “stop paying taxes campaign”?

Disappointing, Mr Tarrant. And I usually enjoy your articles. 1) It has been reported repeatedly, ia in Moneyweb, that the IPP’s in bid windows 1,2 and 3 came at a staggering cost. And that Eskom is paying far more than their selling price for buying that power. So whatever the case may be for the later rounds, they jumped in as greedy as the rest, a fact that is now conveniently obscured. It’s time to pluck the sanctimonious halo off the IPP’s. They may be part of the solution, but they are not lily white. 2) My children living in Somerset-West are not not delusional. At the moment they have SCHEDULED blackouts of 2.5 hours at a time, THREE times a day. That amounts to 7.5 hours per day. 3) Eskom may have competent people as well, but are overstaffed by white-collar “managers” who have nothing to manage and no role to play. All in the name of empowerment.

Renewable energy is not the problem, it is the SOLUTION. You really think it is more expensive than generating power by burning DIESEL? Which is going up again next month by the way.

And the guy who is president now also voted to keep him in. Says a lot doesn’t it?

IPP are being made the problem. coal producers, even coal transporters and the unions are up in arms. About WHAT? The 3% that the IPP produces, come on it is more than that. It is the imbedded corruption from coal purchases to transporters to the unions vested interest. They will all be exposed.

Facing a total black out might not happen… Then again none of any of our work and home appliances were built with load shedding in mind. Our phone system down at work today as it would appear the circuitry has had a surge with two power outages and in all likelihood blown something on the pcb. Transformers are popping as well as they too were not built for constant disruption. MTN spent R 300 million for new batteries last year for their cell towers, yet with power outages and the restoration of power thereafter is not sufficient enough to fully charge those batteries. I can imagine some very upset MTN shareholders next year. Remember too that some of our pension funds are invested in those companies , who through no fault of their own will show lower returns and thus adversely affect pension and other savings. All this and more for another 5 years? Our already weak economy cannot take this hit for so long a time, never mind the SMEs closing their doors NOW because business is too expensive and inefficient without power.So rather than harping on about what MIGHT not happen, rather refocus on what IS happening as we speak. Eskom is but one fine (by fine I mean really, really, really bad) example of what has happened with rampant corruption/cadre deployment/nearsightedness and yes incompetence – if you cannot do forward planning in it’s entirety when you are solely responsible for the entire country’s power supply then YES, you are incompetent. Remember those sage words uttered by that absolute brainiac of a past dictator (zuma) said on in May 2016 in an article written by Jeff Wicks “We will never have load shedding again”. Never apparently is a very short time by South African standards – sort of like we will NEVER have a total blackout.

Do I understand it correctly?

A load-shedding “state 8” would imply that a Eskom representative will arrive at your home, to blow out your candles!

(or to disconnect your Inverter *lol*)

You are gonna est your own words in 6 months….

Same author as yesterday, first Eskom as shady bad guys, now SA public as uninformed.

Clickbait much?

The two articles have reported facts. Nothing more.
Supply from the coal fleet is an embarrassment. Nothing has changed there.
This article simply sets the record straight on myths that are not accurate.

Hilton, if this article is based on fact, could you please explain how Eksdom would regulate the supply going into stages 5 to 8 seeing it’s “The myth of load shedding for 5/7/10 hours”? The only way I see it is that they’d have to remove more areas from the grid for longer periods. Water is always used an an analogy for power supply: if you have a bucket with 10 holes in it and you need 10 litres to pour out of the holes, you need 100 litres to flow into the bucket. If this input drops to 90 litres, you need to plug 1 hole to ensure 10 litres out of the other 9, until the input returns to 100 litres or drops to 80, where a second hole needs to be plugged. If not for continuous periods, they’d have to split the off periods in areas, which would still add up to longer periods offline – exacerbating the stresses on the already fatigued electrical equipment.

This article does nothing other than to mislead people. I’m sure there’s a light at the end of this extremely long tunnel but I guarantee you it will be to the detriment of the consumers.

Why’s it a myth that it could be a lot worse in winter? Demand goes up 6000MW and the planned outages only drop 3000MW. Diesel is a ridiculously expensive source of electrical power and in case the authors hadn’t noticed, Eskom is out of cash.

This is useful info but the fact remains that load shedding first started in 2010 and here we are 9 years later and it is now WORSE! So really, what have these people been doing all this time? Stealing and looting as much as they can carry instead of doing their jobs, no doubt. Also, WHY are we still using diesel? Is there no coal left in the ground? I was under the impression there is coal everywhere in SA. So what exactly is the reason for using highly expensive diesel all the time?

What a mess !! We should have invested in “Private Power Producers” years ago and aggressively so !

Mr. Tarrant had a patriotic moment?

Nah, just been influentially captured.

What was neglected to say was that this whole situation was avoidable.

Pray tell, what of all these investors at the various road shows that promised billions of foreign direct investment? Who is going to build a mine, a smelter, a manufacturing production line, a refinery without reliable cheap electricity? No investment plan would withstand the massive increases being passed on each year with a deteriorating service…

this is a pretty decent article. but what I fail to see, is the ANC government, and by them, I mean the dude that’s in charge of it ALL – Cryil. He’s happily canvassing for votes while large parts of the country sit in darkness – and if you’re really lucky you will from load shedding at work, to load shedding at home. This whole MESS is a case of the ANC putting a shotgun in SA’s mouse then firing both barrels. I really HATE the time that Zuma was in office being referred to as the forgotten/lost decade. Cyril stood next to Zuma OFTEN and did NOTHING to stop the looting. If anything he is an opportunist who used the Zuma mess to seize power [yeh, I know, ironic]. Not ONE of the Zuma minions is in jail – they are living it up on the money they stole from the tax payers – some, are even on the roll for the upcoming elections which makes me want to barf, new dawn my ass. If you want to kill the myths, the urban legends etc. it’s SIMPLE, keep the lights on.

It is extremely politically incorrect to talk about “blackouts”
Rather use the term “previously lit areas”

Keeping a cool head and spreading realism always a good thing. Fair enough, apocalyptic Eskom-power scenario perhaps not true. But: in 1994 and thereabouts a lot of things were promised e g peace and services for all and a few other things – hmmm, don’t blame those who do not believe Eskom under ANC government and riddled with BEE is going to fix this. The sceptics regrettably have emperical evidence such as crime, deteriorating medical services, sewerage in the streets, water shortages in many towns as well as guptaeic references to consider before trusting Eskom.

While I fully understand Hilton’s attempt to “see the glass half full”, he misses the point badly in certain areas. There are undoubtedly many extremely competent people at Eskom but this should not detract from the fact that their staff numbers have skyrocketed over the years while their generating capacity has stayed constant at best all while their debt has ballooned beyond belief. The competent workers are not the problem, it is the rotten thieves at the top and in government which have caused the problems we now face. Unless there is a change at the top (govt and Eskom) we will never see an improvement. Gordhan was the very person who folded to the union pressure about salary increases. Did they deserve those increases ?

Did ESKOM employ a butt kiss journalist?

How much did you get paid to write this bosh, Hilton?

Ever since load shedding started it was blamed on lack of maintenance or repairs. The current load shedding is still blamed for the same reasons(except maybe for the Mozambique loss). New boards and CEOs were implemented and none of them could fix the same old problems. All motor vehicles have a preventive maintenance and inspection schedule to prevent critical failures. The military industry implements the same for all military equipment. These are two very capable industry sectors to help sort out the technical problems because ESKOM has now illustrated they cannot fix it with the expertise employed.

The window dressing goes on and on and on!!! When will it finally be acknowledged that the Leaders of 99% of African countries(SA definitely included) are not yet capable, equipped, educated, and experienced enough to successfully run entities of these sizes!!?? History is a track record, finished and klaar!!!

End of comments.


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