What is load-shedding and why is it occurring in South Africa?


What is load-shedding and why is it occurring in South Africa?

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Load shedding is exactly what it sounds like, the shedding of load. In this case it is load on the electrical grid due to a lack of production capacity to meet the demand. To make ends meet the excess load is shed by turning off parts of the electrical grid, resulting in rolling blackouts which have become somewhat common in African countries.

Why specifically this happens in South Africa is at its core because they lack sufficient generation capacity to meet their demand. Why it has persisted since 2007 all the way into 2022 can broadly be blamed on the corruption and mismanagement of the government-owned national power utility Eskom.

The apartheid government didn’t really build enough power stations for the whole nation and only really cared about providing power to white areas so when apartheid ended the power stations had more load on them( this is the case with other things too). The current government is very corrupt and has a monopoly on power production so when they get funding for it they rather stick it in their pocket.

To shed the load on the power companies (instead of just not being corrupt) they have scheduled power cuts which usually lasts for 2 hours. There is also different stages depending on the severity of the load and might have more frequent power cuts once the stage is higher.

For example stage 1- no power cuts-1 power cut

Stage 3- 2 power cuts usually

Stage 4- 3 power cuts

The stages can go up To stage 8 but never has and usually goes from stage 1-4.

In an electric grid the energy load and the energy production have to match. If there is higher load then production the generators will not be able to keep up their speed so the frequency drop which can cause power lines to burn up as power flows from areas with enough production to match the load. This can cause cascades as surrounding power lines will get the full power.

So if the grid is not able to keep up production to meet the demand then they have to reduce the load on the grid. They do this by intentionally causing power outages. It is better to lose power in a neighborhood or a factory for an hour or two then to burn up the transfer cables and cause the entire power grid to be down for weeks.

Loadshedding is the practice of having controlled power outages to spare the electricity grid during times when electricity production is reduced. South Africa is mostly dependent on coal fired power stations concentrated in one area of the country so any disruption of coal delivery, like heavy rains for instance, or intentional sabotage can seriously disrupt electricity production.

These disruptions would normally be mitigated by having excess capacity as well as pump flow storage and enormous backup diesel generators. The planned excess capacity has failed to come online as power stations projects like Medupi have constantly missed deadlines and have had spectacularly large cost overruns (government corruption) – the project that was supposed to cost R80 billion was estimated at R234 billion in 2019. The diesel is comparative expensive and is only designed to alleviate electricity production during peak hours. Because the majority South Africa is still extremely poor by first world standards the cost can’t simply be passed onto the consumers and therefore there’s a very limited budget for diesel.

South Africa in at the bottom of the African continent and has limited connections to it’s neighboring countries. There are 2 neighboring Hydro Electric projects which are already supplying part of South Africa’s electricity needs and there is very little excess capacity available from it’s neighbors to accommodate any large temporary capacity losses.

Loadshedding itself does not reduce overall demand but if the policy of loadshedding was not followed then South Africa would run the very real danger of having complete grid failure.

South Africa has also been extremely slow to bring Independent Power Producers like wind farms onboard.

It’s also occurring in Texas. Here’s how it works, it’s for similar reasons.

The “grid” is generally built to have some portions that can be isolated from others. That way if there’s a fire or some other disaster, the parts being affected can be disconnected and any surges or other problems the disaster causes won’t affect the rest of the grid.

If people are trying to use more power than the plants can generate, that counts as “a disaster”. It can cause problems that damages the *power plants*, so it’s really important to stop that from happening because that damage isn’t just expensive, it can take MONTHS to repair. So when it starts becoming clear that people are going to use more power than can be generated, some parts of the grid are “shed” or disconnected. Since those people are now using NO power, there’s more power for the people who are still connected.

In Texas, it happens because the state government decided the electric grid should be a free market. The regulations in place do not reward power companies for keeping the power on 100% of the time, but instead rewards them for selling power and lets them charge even more money if load shedding happens and they lose some money. So the power companies have not built redundant plants or been quick to add capacity, because even when they fail they get paid. The Texas Government responded to this issue by allowing them to charge *even more* money when they fail, so guess what’s happening as summer approaches?

South Africa has a similar problem for different reasons. Their power infrastructure was not built to provide reliable power to the entire country but instead to only serve some parts most reliably. The idea was if things got bad they could “shed” the parts of the country they didn’t care about.

So in both places, the government set up a policy that doesn’t punish the power companies if they don’t supply enough power, and it means the companies are doing the absolute minimum they have to do. Our hope is that as Texas and South Africa develop into modern nations, they’ll adopt policies that treat electricity as a public utility instead of a profit center or a privilege for a caste.