South Africa

ESKOM GAUTENG

‘Load Reduction’: Infrastructure failures lead to rolling outages in Gauteng townships

‘Load Reduction’: Infrastructure failures lead to rolling outages in Gauteng townships
Eskom has been cutting the electricity supply to areas across Gauteng, largely in townships and informal settlements, during peak demand periods, 5-9 in the morning and 5-10 in the evening. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jacques Stander)

Eskom has been regularly cutting power to many of Gauteng’s townships and informal settlements for more than a month as energy infrastructure has been in decline while usage has increased.

In just the last four days, Eskom has periodically shut off power to large parts of Gauteng, including areas in Soweto, the West Rand, Roodepoort, the Vaal, Katlehong, Vosloorus, Ivory Park, Ga-Rankuwa, Hammanskraal, Soshanguve, Benoni, Nigel and Brakpan.

The power utility has been cutting the electricity supply to areas across the province, largely in townships and informal settlements, during peak demand periods, 5-9 in the morning and 5-10 in the evening to protect infrastructure from overloading.

The “load reduction” programme – Eskom is adamant it’s not load shedding – was introduced on 13 May. The power utility’s Motlhabane Ramashi, senior manager for maintenance and operations in Gauteng, called the move “unprecedented”.

“It’s not that they don’t have enough supply,” said Professor Anton Eberhard from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, distinguishing load shedding and the current programme in Gauteng.

“The equipment just can’t handle the high loads.”

Load shedding is implemented nationwide when energy demand exceeds generating capacity. The load reduction programme seeks to address localised distribution problems.

In a press statement announcing the implementation of load reduction, which did not detail how the programme would work, Eskom said it needed “to safeguard its assets from repeated failure and explosions as a result of overloading caused by illegal connections, meter bypasses and tampering with electricity infrastructure that are on an increase”.

Ramashi said pole-mounted transformers and mini substations have been exploding frequently in townships and informal settlements, and replacing the equipment was “costly and unsustainable”.

The power cuts mean many of the province’s poorest residents don’t have electricity during peak hours in winter when many people are struggling to survive due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 lockdown. Eskom argues that protecting the infrastructure will avoid longer outages.

Last week, it said equipment failed in Cosmo City, Diepsloot, Ivory Park, Orange Farm, Sebokeng and Soweto due to illegal connections and tampering with Eskom equipment.

“The illegal connections, meter bypasses and other theft-related activities on our infrastructure continue to be the leading cause for the sporadic and prolonged electricity interruptions, which leave the communities without power for days. Eskom is not in a position to continually repair damaged equipment caused by overloading and illegal connections,” it said.

Protests have erupted in various parts of the province recently as power outages have lasted days.

Eskom, which has a debt burden of around R450-billion, did not respond to questions on how much it spent on replacing such equipment in recent financial years or how much it expects to save through the load reduction programme.

Spokesperson Sikonathi Mantshantsha, however, has said it spent R1-billion replacing transformers in the province last year.

Soweto, where small power users are said to owe at least R13.6-billion to Eskom, is often mentioned as an example of the challenge. Residents protested in the township in February after Eskom announced it would disconnect areas with the lowest payment rates

Eskom denied the programme was implemented as a result of its debt and financial troubles. “[The] Load Reduction initiative is purely implemented to protect assets and reduce operational costs and inconvenience to paying customers,” its media office said in a reply to questions.

The rotating power cuts affect both paying and non-paying consumers. Before it took the drastic step to implement rolling blackouts, Eskom said it considered promoting customer awareness of the issue, auditing overloaded transformers, removing illegal connections and the electrification of informal settlements.

Load reduction may have started in May, but the crisis that gave rise to the plan has been building for many years.

Chris Yelland, an energy analyst and managing director at EE Publishers, said load reduction is a form of load shedding, just not the type that has regularly been implemented for over a decade. He described the complex challenges that have contributed to Eskom’s unprecedented move.

He said infrastructure upgrades haven’t kept pace with the growing demand for electricity due to urbanisation, particularly in high-density areas, and there has been an under-investment by Eskom and municipalities on refurbishing, maintaining and replacing their assets.

The under-investment is due, in part, to revenue challenges as some consumers, particularly in poor areas, don’t pay their electricity bills or get their supply from illegal connections, which can lead to overuse. Essentially, energy infrastructure has been in decline while demand has increased.

Soweto, where small power users are said to owe at least R13.6-billion to Eskom, is often mentioned as an example of the challenge. Residents protested in the township in February after Eskom announced it would disconnect areas with the lowest payment rates

Protesters claimed they could not afford to pay their bills and accused Eskom of scapegoating the poor for its financial failures. Protesters have in the past blocked technicians attempting to disconnect power and have resisted attempts to have pre-paid meters installed.

Yelland said municipal leaders have lacked the political will to tackle debt challenges in areas with low payment rates. At the same time, they have been underspending on maintaining infrastructure. When there are few consequences for non-paying consumers, there’s a disincentive for those who have been paying to continue.

While the load reduction programme will continue to limit power supply in parts of Gauteng indefinitely, Eskom has predicted that load shedding will only be implemented across the country for three days in July.

It’s been an intractable dilemma for many, many years,” said Yelland.

There has to be a concerted action that is both bottom-up and top-down.”

He said communities need to discourage illegal connections and the justice system must make convictions against people who steal electricity. Politicians must find the political will to tackle the challenge.

Eberhard said municipalities and Eskom must find a way to address the huge backlog in infrastructure investment.

Seth Mazibuko from the Greater Johannesburg Housing Crisis Committee told SAfm that Soweto residents were suffering during the current power cuts. He said residents had been in discussion with Eskom for years about resolving their outstanding debt.

The timing, it’s becoming a very punitive measure of Eskom trying to collect as much as they can for their own maladministration,” said Mazibuko.

Asked how long the load reduction programme will continue, Eskom said it was “difficult to tell”. 

“We think the load reduction will remain in place for as long as we have overloading that exceeds design capability.”

Our long-term strategy is to continue working with our communities to find a lasting solution on the following: eradication of illegal connections; eradication of meter bypasses; close the electricity ghost vending; formalise electrification of backyard dwellings; electrification of informal settlement.”

While the load reduction programme will continue to limit power supply in parts of Gauteng indefinitely, Eskom has predicted that load shedding will only be implemented across the country for three days in July.

On Tuesday afternoon, the power utility called on consumers to reduce electricity use and said the generation system was “severely constrained” after four units experienced breakdowns. It later said the system had stabilised. DM

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