How Eskom handles power crises: 1950s, 70s, and now

Rolling blackouts have become a regular feature of South African living thanks to decreased generation capacity due to ongoing planned and unplanned maintenance, and increasing demands on the power grid because of the approaching winter.

Eskom said it needs to complete its scheduled maintenance to minimise unplanned outages, and that it only implements load shedding to protect the power system.

“Any additional changes on the already vulnerable and constrained power system could lead to a change in the stage of load shedding at short notice,” Eskom often warns in its daily load shedding updates.

This is not the first time Eskom has faced an energy crisis, though, and it is interesting to contrast how the power utility approached challenges it faced in the 50s and 70s, compared to today.

World War 2

After the Second World War the old Escom faced a soaring demand for power.

Electricity consumption had to be restricted to avoid injury to South Africa’s economy and there was a push to get additional power generation and transmission equipment.

Between 1945 and 1955 Escom reported that the capacity of its power stations more than doubled, with the prediction it would have to double again in the 10 years that followed.

In the decade beginning in 1950, Escom commissioned 10 new power plants, ranging from the relatively small coal power plant in Hex River which had an initial maximum installed capacity of 60MW, to the relatively large Taaibos and Kelvin stations.

Energy shortages in the 60s and 70s

For a variety of reasons, South Africa faced another energy shortage at the end of 1960s.

Analysts and academics pointed to a rising oil price that drove demand for electricity.

In response to the increase, Eskom embarked on a station-building spree which continued well into the 1980s, as depicted in the infographic below.

In his 2006 PhD thesis entitled: “The Origins and Development of South African Energy Policy”, Andrew Marquard highlights that Eskom faced significant winter coal shortages by 1975.

This was managed in two ways:

  1. A Coal Allocation Committee consisting of industry and government representatives was established to identify bottlenecks and tackle them in advance.
  2. A new regulatory system was introduced for the domestic market to deal with what the state and cartels saw as a form of market failure: lack of coal stockpiling facilities.
Eskom Power Plants from 1926 to 2015
Eskom Power Plants from 1926 to 2015

South Africa’s current power crisis

Sadly, it can’t be said that the government and Eskom have dealt with our current power crisis nearly as decisively as their predecessors did.

When load shedding restarted in earnest earlier this year, the line from the government was essentially that South Africa had become a victim of its own success.

Thanks to a growing economy and a society that had finally become inclusive, it has been difficult for South Africa’s electricity supply to keep up with demand.

At best, this spin-doctoring from the government is a half-truth.

The Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) warned the Mbeki administration in 1998 that the next decision about building additional electricity generation capacity would have to be taken by the end of 1999.

If not, electricity demand would outstrip supply by 2007, the DME warned.

It is also worth noting that the DME’s projections were based on an annual demand growth of 4.2%, despite the ANC’s promise to realise an economic growth rate of 6% per year.

Had the ANC government actually managed to achieve its economic growth goal, analysts predict that Eskom would have run out of capacity even sooner.

Ignored warnings

The government did not heed the DME’s warning and instead waited until 2004 before deciding that Eskom should build new power plants.

Former president Thabo Mbeki acknowledged this, saying they believed at the time that Eskom would just be building wasted excess capacity.

“We said, ‘not now, later’. We were wrong. Eskom was right. We were wrong,” said Mbeki.

The indecision came from the government’s intention to open the market up to private sector competition, but without the needed legal frameworks in place this proved to be a doomed endeavour.

Director of EE Publishers and energy expert Chris Yelland explained that after the government’s delay, there were further delays at Eskom.

Construction of Medupi and Kusile only began in 2007 and 2008 respectively, effectively making it impossible for South Africa to avoid running into the power supply problems we face today.

Further delays during construction due to issues with suppliers and industrial action have only served to further deepen the crisis.

More on Eskom power problems

What Stage 4 load shedding will look like

Here is how government was warned in 1998 about SA’s electricity crisis

Eskom power stations from 1926 to 2015

ANC’s big lie about electricity in South Africa

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How Eskom handles power crises: 1950s, 70s, and now