As the possibly now permanent round of Stage 2 load shedding kicked in at the end of January, Eskom attempted to ensure that there would be no load shedding during the morning peak (06:00 to 09:00).
At the time, it said this was “an effort to minimise the impact on traffic”. In the first week of February, it also attempted to ensure that load shedding would be artificially halted from 16:00 to 18:00 to “ease traffic congestion”.
Eskom said: “Suspending loadshedding [sic] during the peak traffic hours is a pilot programme aimed at achieving an appropriate Loadshedding Philosophy for the country. As this is not possible everyday [sic], it will be confirmed each day, dependent on the risk based on the available capacity and emergency reserves on the day.”
Aside from the inanity of describing this as an “appropriate load shedding philosophy”, there are a number of problems with this short-lived plan.
First off, load shedding is a function of the shortfall between demand and available supply.
Given stubbornly high plant breakdowns, the inability to forgo planned maintenance any longer, as well as higher-than-average demand, Eskom is simply not able to meet current demand. Emergency reserves – pumped storage schemes and (diesel-powered) open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) – are being used to keep the lights on, while maintaining an appropriate operating margin.
Eskom cannot use every megawatt of supply it has at a given point in time in case units trip.
Following a strategy where it artificially halts load shedding during peak traffic hours creates a hugely problematic public misconception that Eskom is able to control load shedding. Poke around any number of neighbourhood Facebook groups, and you’ll see tons of ill-informed ‘facts’ about this.
Just days into Eskom’s “pilot programme”, it was unable to “pause” load shedding due to a shortage of generating capacity.
The peak time periods for traffic also conflict directly with metro, municipal and Eskom-direct schedules across the country. Some run four-hour blocks, others two-hour ones. Most start and end on even hours (16:00, for example), but some start and end on odd hours. This means the “pauses” directly conflict with lots of municipal schedules. What happens at 09:00? Do you load-shed an entire block for one hour? (Hint: no.) Also, how does a municipality or metro plan to implement – or not implement – load shedding based on notifications from Eskom that arrive at 22:00 the previous night or later?
Operationally, trying to halt load shedding for two, three or five hours a day introduces a massive and unnecessary risk.
It cannot magically generate the assumed 2 000 megawatt (MW) shortfall at 06:00 or at 16:00. There is a gradual build up of capacity, especially when it comes to coal baseload plants. Only emergency plants (pumped storage and OCGTs) are able to provide power relatively instantly, and Eskom needs to try and keep this proverbial powder dry.
Quite why Eskom assumes it is burdened with the responsibility of ensuring that there is electricity during peak traffic times is anyone’s guess.
Is this an attempt to endear itself to the public when its credibility is at a near all-time low?
The responsibility of ensuring minimal impact on traffic, especially in the large metros like Joburg, Ekurhuleni, Cape Town, Tshwane and eThekwini (Durban) lies with these metros themselves.
A year ago I wondered out loud why there was no coordinated management of this crisis.
I noted that: “A coordinated effort should be in place to get people to and from the major economic hubs (CBDs and industrial areas) in the major metros with as little disruption as possible. Transport corridors are well understood. Well over 100 000 people drive into Sandton each day. A far bigger amount travel to the Joburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town city centres, from where they travel onwards to their places of work.
“Why has logic not prevailed when it comes to the scheduling of load shedding in these areas during the morning and (particularly) afternoon peaks? There is no value in the whole of Sandton sitting in gridlock because of load shedding between 4 pm and well after 7 pm (as is the case). The same is true of multiple other hubs.”
Nothing has changed in the decade-plus since load shedding first reared its head. And it is doubtful anything will.
There is zero intelligence to load shedding schedules, save for the City of Cape Town’s decision to not load-shed in the City Bowl. Rather, we rely on dogmatic Excel spreadsheets that stack blocks in a systematic pattern across the days of the month. This is an ‘attempt’ to make load shedding ‘fair’ (there is no indication that it even manages to achieve this, not even theoretically). There are countless examples of areas that are ‘spared’ load shedding entirely unpredictably. Sometimes your lights will go off according to the schedule, other times they just won’t.
To minimise the impact of the near-permanent load shedding that will be required over the next 12 to 18 months, it needs to be entirely predictable.
Metros and municipalities around the country need to know exactly what to expect, and when.
These same metros and municipalities have a duty to ratepayers and citizens to ensure that the impact on traffic is kept to a minimum. A simple decision to award the hot potato of a pointsperson contract in Johannesburg, for example, will more than halve the impact of load shedding during peak travel times. Provincial and national government ought to be intervening and holding these metros accountable. We can only hope.