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Opinion: If load shedding is the new normal …

We have to get better at it.

On Friday afternoon, the eve of the third weekend in a row of rotating power cuts, Eskom spokesperson Andrew Etzinger told me there is not a single power station in Eskom’s fleet without issues.

I was trying to get a better understanding of why Eskom battled to supply the projected demand of 28 000MW and had to resort to its highest level of load shedding to reduce the demand by 4 000MW.

“Our old customers were among the culprits, Duvah unit 3, Majuba’s collapsed coal silo and the more recent headaches Lethabo suffocating in ash, and Matimba, that is losing up to 1000 precious megawatts due to weather conditions unfavourable to its dry-cooling system.”

He repeated the explanation about having to find time over weekends to replenish the water (See: Understanding Eskom’s load shedding decisions) for the two pump-storage units and the open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) that ran out of diesel.

How on earth can there not be diesel available in the country, I asked.

Etzinger explained that there was a problem earlier with off-loading imported diesel from a ship due to rough seas, but that is not the reason behind the on-going diesel supply challenges.

The OCGTs were only designed to run a few hours over peak demand per day, but are currently being run for up to 17 hours per day. Etzinger explained that the physical diesel supply system – the pumps that pump the diesel from the supplier into Eskom’s storage – have a limited capacity in accordance with its intended use.

Basically, the diesel is being burnt faster than the pumps can fill up the storage units, even if there is more than enough available to buy.

“I think we are sometimes losing focus on the real problem and that we are using the system in a way it was never intended to be used,” Etzinger then said.

I gained the understanding from a clearly very tired and worried Eskom spokesperson that we need to look further than identifying the immediate cause of the 1 000MW or 2 000MW or even 4 000MW supply deficit and look at the real problem – we are abusing our assets as a country and this will lead us to total darkness.

Against this background I spend my weekend like all other South Africans navigating Eskom’s interference in our lives.

Saturday was rather uneventful, but Sunday morning I had to go to Menlyn to have my defective iPhone checked out. I made an appointment beforehand and duly pitched up at 10:00.

The technician had barely looked at it before it all went dark. Load shedding.

I was politely requested to come back later when the power returned and iStore closed its doors behind me. Many other shops did the same. Sunday Christmas shoppers were streaming out of Menlyn and the exit gates were lifted, depriving the mall of valuable parking income as well.

I returned later and concluded my business, but it seemed to be such a waste – driving there twice to do business once, spending time and money that are both very precious.

Over the weekend I saw many fellow countrymen and women complaining about the impact of load shedding.

Some had difficulty accessing schedules; some suburbs were not on the schedule. Some checked the phase 2 schedule and were unprepared when Eskom escalated to stage 3. In some cases the power stayed off long after load shedding should have come to an end.

Security control rooms battled to deal with all the alarms that reacted as power went off and on, one lady mixed a whole rusk batter and packed her oven full of pans, but the power-cut meant she had to throw away the costly ingredients.

We all have a load shedding story to tell.

The fact is, even though Eskom has given warning, we were still unprepared and caught off-guard.

If we have to accept that load shedding is now part of our lives – and after my discussion with Etzinger I believe more than ever that is the case – we have to get better at it.

To my mind, the one thing that will make it less horrible is if we can remove some of the uncertainty from the load shedding experience.

Eskom’s aim thus far was to limit the duration and extent of the load shedding to the bare minimum. Obviously it doesn’t want to inconvenience the nation more than required, hence the escalation to a more invasive stage 3 only when it becomes critical and at very short notice.

To make that work requires instant and countrywide communication and reaction from a huge number of role players down to the very local level.

From a personal and business point of view I don’t think that is working. The overall impression is that Eskom is changing its tune all the time and cannot be trusted. People are confused and feel the country is spinning out of control as evidenced by the fact that we cannot even control when to go to the mall or bake something successfully.

Is it time – not to have extensive load shedding for longer periods – but rather in a very consistent manner.

Forget about stage 1 and 2. Do stage 3 load shedding permanently for the next two years at least, whether there is a supply constraint on the day or not. Change the schedules so that I know I will be without electricity one morning or one afternoon, or dare I say even one day per week and stick to it. Stick to it absolutely.

Communicate this properly and let it become a country project like the Fifa World Cup.

Then I will be able to work around it. Two hours at a time that may or may not happen are just not long enough to rearrange the way I live and the way I do business. And clearly that needs to change for all of us.

Businesses may be able to adjust the working hours of staff and trading hours and utilise the powerless period sensibly. Every business can publish its load-shedding slot on its website or communicate it to their clients. While it will still be costly and painful, we can find a way to work around it.

But more importantly, we will be forcing a reserve margin that should give Eskom space to do the maintenance it so dearly needs to do and prevent total darkness.

This is how I see it from where I sit. Let’s hear what other people think about the best way to mitigate the mess we find ourselves in.

Two final words:

This is not an Eskom problem. It is a South African problem that will have to be solved by us. To do it, we will need strong and consistent leadership.

And Eskom, if we do manage to bring you this relief, use its wisely and don’t mess it up!

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