Eskom blocks town from using own solar power to avoid load-shedding

The Johannesburg High Court has ruled that a small Free State municipality is not allowed to use private solar power to reduce load-shedding.

The Mafube municipality has been using private power distributor Rural Maintenance to provide residents in the town of Frankfort with electricity for more than a decade.

As part of a 25-year contract, Rural Maintenance buys electricity from four solar farms in the area that can provide up to 3.7MW of generating capacity, more than the town consumes.

Aside from supplying electricity at cheaper rates than Eskom,  it has allowed Rural Maintenance to avoid implementing load-shedding in Frankfort altogether on certain days since February 2023, provided there was enough sunshine on a particular day.

This process is known as “voiding”, wherein a distributor can compensate for the generation shortfall from Eskom through embedded generation.

The graph below from Rural Maintenance shows how much load-shedding it voided for one week in March 2023.

A legal firm representing Rural Maintenance, Shepstone & Wylie, alleged that Eskom initially granted Rural Maintenance’s request for self-managed load-shedding on a three-month trial in January.

Although data from the trial was positive, the utility had since lodged a dispute over the practice with the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa).

It argued that voiding undermined the purpose of load-shedding and said Rural Maintenance had not disclosed it would implement the practice once its agreement with Eskom had been concluded.

It demanded that Rural Maintenance cease providing electricity to the town during the load-shedding slots determined by Eskom.

Rural Maintenance subsequently approached the Johannesburg High Court with an urgent application to restrain Eskom from taking control of the municipality’s point of connection to the national grid and interfering in the electricity provision to Frankfort.

Shepstone & Wylie said Eskom argued that if the approach in Frankfort was to expand to other parts of the country, it would prevent Eskom from managing the grid and could result in a national blackout.

But the firm said that Eskom did not put any documentary or expert evidence in front of the court supporting this.

It also argued that the localised load-shedding schedule had no negative impact on the national grid because its connection was downstream from Eskom’s point of connection.

Municipality fails to come to the party

However, Judge Molahleni ruled that Rural Maintenance’s case was not properly before the court and dismissed the urgent application to preserve the status quo until the dispute was resolved.

A key issue was that Rural Maintenance had not proven the Mafube municipality had authorised the distributor to proceed with litigation.

“The applicants, in their replying affidavit, did not produce any affidavit, as promised, confirming that the Municipality had authorised the institution of this application,” the judge stated.

Rural Maintenance said it had no doubt that should the municipality have placed the needs of its community at the forefront, a different result may have been forthcoming.

“We can only hope there was no political meddling from outside of Mafube,” the company said.

“Rural now has no alternative but to switch off portions of the sunfarm during the day as from Friday 21 April 2023,” the company said.

Therefore, readily available capacity will be going to waste.

Rural Maitneance CEO Chris Bosch also previously warned that adjustments to the load-shedding schedule that allowed keeping water pumps and sewage works operations online could also be halted.

In the broader perspective, Bosch said that an Eskom win could discourage investment in private power elsewhere in the country, despite this being critical to reducing load on the utility’s grid.

Bosch said the company would make a concerted effort to continue to engage both Eskom and Nersa to try and understand Eskom’s reluctance to support the initiative.

“Rural is still in the dark as to the real reason behind Eskom’s stance,” Bosch said.

“Eskom has, however, lost a unique opportunity to gather factual evidence within a controlled environment to make informed future decisions which could have had a tremendous positive impact on South Africa as a whole.”

Eskom has challenged a similar plan in Linbro Park, Johannesburg, where Greenstone Energy wants to provide gas power to residents complaining about poor service delivery from Eskom.

Outside load-shedding, residents of the neighbourhood said they have been hit by extremely high levels of power outages.

The full judgment of the Johannesburg High Court striking down Rural Maintenace’s urgent application is embedded below.

Now read: Eskom to write off municipal debts

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Eskom blocks town from using own solar power to avoid load-shedding