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Would load shedding be worse without Covid?

Busting the myth that power demand is lower this year.
Veil removed: Eskom has started publishing a live system-level view of the power system via a series of dashboards. Image: Dean Hutton, Bloomberg

There exists a perception that load shedding would be far worse were it not for the disruption wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown.

This popular opinion resurfaces every time load shedding rears its head, especially on social media streets. The ‘theory’ is that with the country locked in a recession, demand should ‘surely’ be far lower than normal. Hence, were it not for the pandemic, we would be at Stage 6 or even Stage 8.

There are a few problems with this theory, not least of which is the fact that load shedding is the simple result of a mismatch between electricity demand and supply at a given point in time. While the equation itself is simple, the factors influencing the size of this mismatch (or whether there is even one at all) are far more complex. Chief among these is the erratic reliability within Eskom’s coal generating fleet. Many (most) of these power stations are old and to describe maintenance trends over the past decade as ‘poor’ would be charitable.

But Eskom does have an idea of the reliability trend across its fleet.

It knows, for example, which units are stable and predictable, it knows which are not capable of running at full capacity (with partial load losses), and it knows which are unreliable and likely due for a long list of repairs.

With this information, Eskom is able to forecast demand fairly accurately. By definition, planned maintenance can also be correctly forecast.

The tricky aspects

The two areas where it can get caught out is when the reliability of the fleet craters and those units lost to ‘unplanned maintenance’ spike to above normal levels or where, like last week, demand was higher than forecast.

In this situation, Eskom has a number of levers to pull: it can use pumped storage schemes to augment supply, it can run its own emergency open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) or ask independent power producers (IPPs) to also burn diesel, or it can cut demand with load shedding.

But when in this situation and multiple units trip (by default, unexpectedly!), it is forced to use whatever emergency generation capacity it has (which doesn’t last forever) and then remove demand to balance the power system.

That’s what happened last week, and is basically the sequence of events every time there is load shedding.

We know that multiple units tripped last week and that Eskom claimed that demand was higher than expected. But do we know that demand was categorically higher?

Normally we would have a limited view a week after the fact, when Eskom publishes its weekly System Status Report. This isn’t all that useful in that Eskom only shows the supply and demand picture as at the daily (evening) peak. There’s no information intra-day, and generation availability is aggregated to a weekly level (with only the average percentage of planned maintenance, plant breakdowns and generation capacity).

Information breakthrough

Thanks to pressure from the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), which filed a Promotion of Access to Information Act request in April, Eskom has this week started to publish a live view of the power system, which it has catchingly named ‘System status and other related data’.

The utility will likely contend that it was going to publish this data anyway, under the new leadership of André de Ruyter. Outa says while this is a good start, it falls far below what other global utilities publish.

For the first time, we have a system-level view (but not a power station one) via a series of dashboards showing:

  • Actual and forecast hourly demand (for the past and coming seven days)
  • The supply picture for the most recent full day (in other words, yesterday)
  • The supply picture for the past seven days
  • Pumped storage usage for the past seven days
  • OCGT generation over the past seven days (Eskom and IPPs)
  • Hourly renewable generation for the current and previous month
  • Weekly unplanned outage picture
  • Hourly unplanned outage trend for the past 14 days
  • Generation outages by type (per month), and
  • Monthly emissions data.

Source: Eskom System status and other related data

From these dashboards, we now know – definitively – that electricity demand had already started returning to ‘normal’ forecast levels at the start of June.

The deviation (green line) on the chart shows how much below or above the forecast actual demand has been.

Source: Eskom System status and other related data

It is clear that in Level 5 lockdown, demand was as much as 10 000 megawatts (MW) below Eskom’s forecast. In Level 4 (May), demand had begun its trajectory back to normal as mines and factories reopened. By the middle of June, demand was firmly exceeding what Eskom had forecast. As forecasting is never exact, this trend will never track the deviation line perfectly. Rather, expect to see it clustered closely to the deviation line for the remainder of the year, which means demand is for all intents and purposes back to ‘normal’ levels.

(The separate weekly system status reports also show that peak demand was at ±30 000MW at the end of August, the same level as the same week last year.)

The big jump in early September was the result of the unexpected cold snap, plus possible pent-up demand from industry operating at lower than normal levels. With far cheaper summer tariffs kicking in on September 1, this may have yielded additional demand in a year that’s been anything but normal.

Now, whether demand would be 2 000MW or 4 000MW higher in an economy growing at 2%, 3%, 4% or even 5% a year is a separate debate entirely.

Source: Eskom System status and other related data

For now, the supply picture (particularly from the problematic coal fleet) has stabilised.

By lunchtime on Monday, Eskom was only reducing around 700MW of load, which improved to 69MW by 4pm. At these negligible levels, it would be able to cover the shortfall with other reserves. The evening peak was still a problem, but generating capacity remained stronger than it had been for days, resulting in load shedding (unofficially) being terminated earlier than expected. The situation improved further on Tuesday.

Source: Eskom System status and other related data

This is a far cry from the 5 200MW of manual load reduction at 5pm on Friday.

Quite how Eskom managed this level of load reduction while operating under ‘Stage 4’ load shedding, which seeks to cut up to 4 000MW of demand, remains a mystery.

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If we can’t keep the lights on in lockdown then the problems for the utility and the economy are worse than expected.

Years of mismanagement and corruption.

No power even though theres less economic activity. Its a no brainer, if the country had no Covid and was fully operational it sure as hell would be worse loadshedding! Its damn ironic that Eskom considers themself a “business” even though this “business” actually implores you to use less of its product. Marketing in reverse, pushing campaigns to not sell product but to implore you to switch off unecesarry appliances. Only in SA.

100% agree and overstaffed eskom’s solution to their self created financial problem is to up electricity tariffs annually to make up for the lessor electricity sold or simply given away over years to useless municipalities, wonder who is / was in control of their debtor system.

In any normal country the aim is to keep the electricity as low as possible as a main input cost in production of other goods and services – in sa eskom simply does not understand this theory – the taxpayer is seen as the inexhaustible financial source for eskom’s 100% failure in every aspect as a business.

covert19 actually pointed out how many weak points / failures of anc government managed projects like eskom, praasa, hospitals, saa water, schools, police training, etc etc etc has.

my own prediction is the water / dams and road infrastructure is the next to go onto the eskom-hell-hole-level due to lack of repairs and maintenance by an incompetent government that does not understand the meaning of “prevention is better than cure”.

This is a perfect example of how a socialist economy works and how shortages of goods and services arise form Price Controls rather than the actual availability of goods and services.

Despite the Environmentalists and political views that we are burning through our resources and thus we have a shortage of raw materials which is internally false, in reality we have an abundance of resources and by all means we have only extracted 61 billion tons which is significantly small considering the fact that the earth weighed an estimated 6 Sextillion Tons which equals to 0.0000000000102%

And contrary to belief that the had private companies owned the right to produce electricity at high profits these profits would fall as new players are entering the market by supplying a higher quantity and prices would eventually be at a rate which both the consumer and supplier are in agreement with “the market rate”.

No additional market activity would take place until there is an excess availability of power to be absorbed by new consumers (private business and house holds)

Socialists governments tend to force this agenda that their is limited supply, however this is never the case. The reason they do so is to squash private companies so that they Quasi control over everything there by enriching themselves and their friends.

I wonder how many Mw of power is no longer needed due to the smelters that have stopped operating, Glencore Lydenburg for instance has closed down, 4 furnaces and all the conveyors, filters etc that go with them no longer taking any electricity, also not paying anything to Eskom

Would load shedding be worse without Covid? One can speculate ’till the cows come home or the Mississippi runs dry. One thing is certain, though: load shedding would be better if the ANC was not in the picture. In fact, it would probably not exist.

This is the wrong question. To debate about 1500MW – 4,000MW now above or below peak demand, with or without covid is a moot point.

The reality is that sustained ANC socialist policies over the last 20 years, has ensured a demand picture that is heavily suppressed and no reflection of what demand, should or could have been. One can argue that industry and FDI has been forced to adjust and downsize to fit a forced seriously hamstrung and rapidly diminishing supply. How many projects just did not make it off the drawing board, how many millions of jobs direct and indirect have not been created due to ESKOM.

In a society as rich as RSA is in resources – If normal entities like TRANSNET and ESKOM had been run free and fairly for the last 2 decades, the debate would not be about Covid or 1500 – 4000MW. This country should have a REAL demand now in excess of 52,000MW – 58,000MW, with a generation capacity (SUPPLY) in excess of 70,000MW to allow for further growth.

Johannes you make a very good point – we are focused on ESKOM now, but the elephant in the next room is our rapidly crumbling water infrastructure, which is close to catastrophic failure (eta 2021-2024 given in 2006). The report put together some 14yrs ago by certain RAND water executives has been buried for too long. An updated version was done in 2014. Essentially the critical spend needed to fix and maintain that is already over R500B and being largely ignored. Do we have a term yet for WATER shedding?

Interesting article. Three thoughts;
1. Friday’s 5pm loadshedding of 5400MW was called stage 4 instead of stage 5 as it should have been called, to pacify potential investors and ratings agencies (and Ramaphosa.)
2. Hilton refers to current lower tariffs for consumers – a surprise because didn’t all tariffs go up a few months ago?
3. OUTA is one organisation that honestly deserves to be supported by all South Africans. In the western cape, unlike elsewhere, we are still reaping the fruits of OUTA labour years afterwards; NO tolls and tollgates all over Cape Town!

Wow, with these impressive “Demand Side” charts, I would be able to track and see a minute spike when I boil my Russel Hobs kettle on a certain day/time 😉

Eskom is very clever: they are to provide us with impressive information at your fingertips to track this or that. How cool is that, everyone thinks? And when we have your Loadshedding phone apps to augment. Now we’re all good.

….and when we all gaze in awe of such helpful ‘information-age’ resources at our disposal (which will make our grandparents jealous)…..THAT WE COMPLETELY LOSE SIGHT OF THE FACT THAT WE SHOULDN’T HAVE LOADSHEDDING TO START WITH!!!

You see, our older generation were starved of information back in the day, ag shame…they DIDN’T even KNOW about loadshedding 😉 It friggen did not exist!!

Hilton the problem with your argument is that in 2008 we had load shedding due to ESKOM battling to supply a peak of 37 000MW now they cannot supply a peak of 30 000MW despite adding 8 to 10000MW to the grid. Also the argument that the power stations are old and poorly maintained is rather very annoying because ESKOM is the organization that should been maintaining the power stations and replacing the parts of the power stations that it is not longer worth maintaining.

End of comments.





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