Energy News

Winter 2023: South Africa’s Looming Power Crisis – Brace for Blackouts

Published by
WIlliam Dube
  1. South Africa faces a severe power crisis in winter 2023, with escalating power outages and the potential for stage 8 load shedding, which could lead to a total grid collapse and prolonged blackouts.
  2. Contributing factors include the aging and breakdown-prone coal-fired power stations, delays in nuclear plant upgrades, and limitations of gas, hydro, wind, and solar sources.
  3. Preventing a grid collapse requires government, Eskom, and consumers to work together, focusing on maintenance, infrastructure improvements, alternative energy investments, and energy conservation.

Over the past 15 years, South Africa has faced an escalating number of power outages, with stage 8 load shedding becoming increasingly likely for the upcoming winter months. This situation has resulted in frustration among citizens, negative international economic sentiment, and financial hardships for numerous businesses. Public pressure has intensified, leading President Cyril Ramaphosa to proclaim a state of disaster for a brief period and appoint a Minister of Electricity.

The year 2022 saw the worst power outages in South Africa’s history, with electricity generation deficits reaching up to 6 GW at times, necessitating up to 10 hours of rolling blackouts. High outages have continued throughout the warmer early months of 2023, and since January, the country has experienced daily power cuts. It is widely anticipated that the situation will deteriorate as electricity consumption peaks during the southern winter months of June and July. There is a growing concern that the national electricity grid could eventually collapse entirely, leading to blackouts lasting for several days or even weeks.

An analysis of trends and recent events in the power sector reveals several factors contributing to the potential of critical power outages this winter. The power generation mix and its failures are outlined below, along with the current likelihood of a total grid collapse.

  1. Coal-fired power stations: Eskom, the national electricity utility, has an installed maximum generating capacity of 55 GW, with 74% (40 GW) generated from coal power stations. Most of these plants are older and have been used excessively, leading to frequent breakdowns. Newer coal plants, Medupi and Kusile, have experienced construction delays, cost overruns, and technical design flaws, with repairs only expected to be completed in 2024.
  2. Nuclear: Accounting for 3% of the national generation capacity, two units at the Koeberg power station have a total capacity of 1.8 GW. Major upgrades are required for these units to continue operating beyond 2024, but progress is already behind schedule, leaving 0.9 GW unavailable during this year’s winter months.
  3. Gas, hydro, wind, and solar: The remaining 13 GW (23%) of South African power generating capacity is split roughly equally among these sources. However, they typically only produce 25%-50% of their nominal maximum power due to various constraints, such as the intermittent nature of sunshine and wind, irregular water flow, and the high cost of gas-generated electricity.

As no significant relief from the power shortfall is expected before next year, South Africans must prepare for winter power shortages. Electricity peak consumption increases from a summer average of 32 GW to 36 GW in winter due to higher use of electrical heating devices, lights, and geysers. Eskom attempts to maximize power plant operation during colder months by scheduling maintenance during warmer seasons. This strategy will provide some relief in 2023, but many plants will remain out of operation for the entire winter season.

Estimates suggest that the mid-winter power shortfall will be around 2 GW greater than in 2022, leading to stage 8 load shedding on some days. The danger of a grid collapse arises if the grid’s oscillating frequency deviates too far from the prescribed 50 Hertz, causing power plants to trip one after another, leading to a complete blackout. Re-energizing the grid would be a slow process, resulting in many days of lost economic activity and potential looting and vandalism.

Fuel shortages could also occur, affecting transportation, industry, and facilities that rely on backup generators, such as hospitals, laboratories, and morgues. Rolling power cuts are the most effective way to prevent a grid collapse and total blackout. Eskom is committed to maintaining generated power levels above the power used by cutting access to electricity for some users.

A swift reduction in power usage through the implementation of more stringent electricity cuts would always help prevent a grid collapse. However, the possibility of a grid collapse cannot be entirely ruled out, particularly if a series of poorly performing coal plants break down in quick succession.

As South Africa’s newly appointed Electricity Minister has cautioned, the winter of 2023 is poised to be a challenging period. To mitigate the risks and potential consequences of power outages and a grid collapse, it is crucial for the government, Eskom, and consumers to work together in addressing the country’s energy crisis. This includes investing in alternative energy sources, improving maintenance and infrastructure, and promoting energy conservation among the population.

While the completion of new solar and wind farms in late 2024, as well as a significant increase in domestic solar installations, offers some hope for the future, South Africa’s power sector must navigate the impending winter crisis to ensure a stable and reliable energy supply for its citizens and businesses.

WIlliam Dube

William Dube is a finance and economic news expert with over 10 years of experience in economic anaylsis, financial product assessment and market analysis. With a numerous certificates from prestigious universities including but not limited to Yale University and the University of Pennyslivenia. William specializes in providing insightful news developments in South Africa and commentary on investment strategies, risk management, and global economic trends. You can contact him on william@rateweb.co.za

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Published by
WIlliam Dube

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