South Africans will have to deal with traffic jams and darkness as Stage 4 load shedding continues at least until midnight on Wednesday.
This could cost the economy R942 million per day, according to calculations by Nova Economics.
The intense load shedding is the result of unprotected strike action by Eskom staff demanding wage increases, which is affecting operations at various power stations in the already vulnerable power system.
Eskom warned on Sunday afternoon that the stage may change at short notice “depending on the state of the plant and the availability of labour”.
The utility said 4 000 megawatts (MW) of generation capacity is at risk due to the strike action. “Protracted strike actions may lead to further damage and prolonged delays to returning units to service, which would compound an already constrained power system.”
Every stage of load shedding represents a deficit of 1 000MW of capacity.
Eskom’s warning therefore means that, should the situation deteriorate further, there is a risk of as much as Stage 8 load shedding.
After a three-week respite with no planned outages, Eskom instituted Stage 2 load shedding a week ago, which continued daily until it was intensified to Stage 4 on Friday morning.
Currently set down for at least six days, this will be the longest continuous stint of Stage 4 load shedding so far this financial year.
By Wednesday the number of days with load shedding will total 47 out of the possible 90 days since 1 April when the utility implemented its winter plan. That is on average more than every second day.
Contingency plans implemented
Eskom said on Sunday repairs and planned maintenance are being delayed, as staff at several power stations fail to report to duty.
Its management explained earlier that it had implemented contingency plans, which arranged for managers who are not participating in the strike to take over the work of the striking workers.
However, those who were prepared to continue working found the entrances to power stations blocked by protesting groups or stayed home after receiving threatening phone calls or text messages.
Eskom earlier declared a dispute after wage talks with unions reached a deadlock and requested an expedited date from the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) for a conciliation meeting this week. If that fails, the matter will be set down for arbitration.
Eskom’s operations are classified as an essential service and its staff are therefore not entitled to protection during strike action.
A total of 3 894MW of generation capacity is currently unavailable due to planned maintenance, while another 15 472MW is unavailable due to breakdowns.
Eskom cannot keep the lights on with its emergency reserves of diesel turbines and pumped-storage schemes, as both the diesel and water levels are low. The existing reserves have to be preserved to balance the power system if further trips occur due to the unlawful action of strikers and to compensate for the supply deficit.
It gets worse …
Adding to South Africa’s woes is a fault on a transmission line in Mozambique, costing Eskom another 600MW of imported energy from the Cahora Bassa hydro-electric scheme.
As it is, Eskom is going through winter without the 900MW from Koeberg Unit 2 it had hoped to rely on. The nuclear power station outside Cape Town has two similar sized units and is known for its high level of reliability and low cost of production.
Koeberg Unit 2 was taken offline in January for a 155-day outage to refuel and, among other things, replace the three steam generators to allow it to extend the life of the plant by another 20 years beyond July 2024, when the current operating licence expires.
Early in March Eskom however announced that, contrary to earlier reports to management, Koeberg Unit 2 was not ready for the generator replacements; this has been deferred to late next year.
Among other things, the containment building where the radioactive old generators will be stored after removal is not yet complete.
At the time, Eskom head of operations Jan Oberholzer said the decision was taken to ensure that the unit would be back in operation early in June to bolster generation during winter.
This however did not happen, and Eskom now expects the unit to return to full service only by the end of July, without the planned steam generator replacement work having been done.
Oberholzer recently said that the delay is “understandable” because the utility must ensure that the old nuclear generators can still be safely operated until they are replaced.
In response to questions, Eskom said international experts have to give this assurance and they need a month to mobilise and complete the task, whereafter it will take 10 days to ramp up the unit to full capacity.
Koeberg’s Unit 1 was planned to be taken offline in September for its generator replacement but this will now only be done in December, with the unit’s return to service anticipated around mid-2023.
Energy expert Chris Yelland from EE Business Intelligence has expressed his concern that Eskom is cutting it very fine and any further delay may take Koeberg Unit 1 beyond the deadline when the current operating licence will expire.