South Africa’s electricity system is falling apart – and it is much bigger than just Eskom

Load shedding has returned to South Africa in recent weeks after striking Eskom workers sabotaged the national grid.

However, this is not the biggest problem facing the country’s electricity system.

MyBroadband has received new research on power outages in South Africa over the past two years, which shows a drastic increase in the number of power failures.

The research was conducted by two established IT companies, and was provided to MyBroadband on the condition of anonymity.

They tracked the number of power outage hours at thousands of locations across the country, which showed an increase of over 100% in power failures in 2018.

The research further predicts a 100% increase in power outages across South Africa for the summer of 2018.

This large increase is not related to load shedding, but it did increase the “power outage hours” in June 2018.

The graph below illustrates the findings.

Power-outage-hours

Eskom disputes the findings

Eskom, however, said there is no evidence to support the information that power outages, measured in number of hours, from Eskom is more than double in 2018.

“The customer experienced an improvement in the average duration of 4.8% over the comparative period,” said Eskom.

Eskom added that it continuously maintains and upgrades network infrastructure to manage overloading, and secures the network to deter theft and vandalism of equipment.

“Eskom is proactively engaging with affected communities and partnering with other key stakeholders including local government and police to find sustainable solutions to further reduce the number of outages experienced.”

“We are focused on restoring supply to customers within the prescribed regulation of 7.5 hours,” it added.

Eskom highlighted that power outages are mainly caused by the overloading of transformers – especially during cold spells – and this is often as a result of theft, vandalism, and illegal connections.

Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom confirm the research

Vodacom and MTN, which closely monitor power outages across their networks, told MyBroadband the research findings are accurate.

Vodacom said it has experienced a gradual increase in power outages over the first six months of 2018.

“We did note an increase in power outages during the months of March and June in particular, largely due to load shedding,” said Vodacom.

It explained that in the event of a power outage, its back-up systems run at high capacity to ensure network availability.

MTN SA’s executive for corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan said there has definitely been a consistent and sustained degradation of power supply – both when comparing month-on-month supply and comparing the first half of 2017 and 2018.

MTN listed municipal supply problems, ageing electricity infrastructure, vandalism, and cable theft as common causes for the power outages affecting mobile operators.

O’Sullivan said MTN continues to invest in and deploy additional back-up batteries and generators to address the issues.

“MTN SA will invest a further R300 million in the second half of the year to limit the impact of power supply concerns on our millions of valued customers,” said O’Sullivan.

Telkom told MyBroadband it has also seen a higher number of power outage hours per month in 2018.

“There has been a notable increase in year-on-year power outage hours for the same period,” said Telkom.

It added that the power outages impact the company and its subscribers, with reduced network availability and a worse customer experience.

“Furthermore, there is a constant need to invest in back-up power alternatives.”

Why there are so many power outages

While the research tracked power outage hours, it did not investigate the underlying reasons for the power failures.

Electricity expert Chris Yelland, however, said the causes include planned load shedding, cable theft and vandalism, ageing infrastructure, a lack of maintenance, and system overloading.

And while people often blame Eskom for power outages, many of the problems are linked to municipal electricity distribution networks.

These networks are the responsibility of municipalities to which Eskom provides electricity, and ageing infrastructure and a lack of maintenance by municipalities are behind many power outages.

Another big problem is the overloading of municipal infrastructure – due to rapid urbanisation in South Africa.

Many power outages occur when the municipal distribution network is overloaded and trips, especially during periods of high electricity demand – like on a cold winter night.

Instead of proactive monitoring and maintenance of the infrastructure, poor management means that problems are only detected and fixed after a failure occurs.

This reactive approach to ageing and failing electricity infrastructure is a growing problem in South Africa which is contributing to the higher number of failures, he said.

Eskom is not blameless, though, as it also struggles with ageing infrastructure and poor maintenance.

Yelland said cable theft is an additional problem for both municipal networks and Eskom’s grid, and causes a high percentage of outages.

Now read: Why a total Eskom blackout in South Africa should scare the hell out of you

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South Africa’s electricity system is falling apart – and it is much bigger than just Eskom