Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

SA’s power demand fell off a cliff on the first day of the nationwide lockdown, prompting Eskom to take several generation units offline.

Eskom has been struggling to keep up with SA’s power demand as its ageing power fleet has been inadequately maintained and grown unreliable. Apart from the operational crisis facing the utility, its R450bn debt burden made Eskom the single largest risk to the economy. That is until the Covid-19 pandemic reached the country.

As the government hastened to curb the spread of the pandemic, a 21-day national lockdown was imposed on Thursday evening. And as nonessential operations are shuttered, SA’s power demand has plummeted.

Eskom figures show that national demand, which is usually about 30,000MW, began to fall on Wednesday already.

By Wednesday night it was headed towards 25,000MW but by Thursday night was close to the 18,000MW mark. By Friday morning, demand had dropped below 16,000MW.

Before the lockdown, Eskom had taken some of its power generating units offline, to protect the integrity of the system, though the utility said they were available to return to service at short notice should the need arise.

It also said it would scale back on its maintenance programme to minimise the number of workers on site during the lockdown.

Eskom had planned to ramp up the “philosophy maintenance” of its ailing coal fleet, a model that requires servicing units in strict adherence with prescribed maintenance rules. This was expected to be in full effect by the end of April.

“Eskom has had to postpone the philosophy maintenance for the duration of the lockdown as we have to keep the number of workers on site at a minimum,” the utility said in a statement.

“We have instead shifted the focus to carrying out short-term maintenance and other repairs to optimise the generation units to meet the rising demand after the lockdown.”

Chris Yelland, an energy analyst and MD of EE Business Intelligence, said the huge drop in power demand showed the enormous economic affect of the lockdown.

“No-one can be sure how long it will take to recover from this,” he said.

The Covid-19 crisis was turning SA’s energy planning on its head, Yelland said. The long-awaited Integrated Resource Plan had made a number of assumptions about SA’s economic growth and energy needs which would no longer be relevant in three months’ time.

Plans to tackle SA’s worsening power crisis were front and centre under President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership. Most recently, a tender to procure 5,000MW in emergency power was published.

“We may not even need it,” said Yelland. “It’s all very uncertain now.”

steynl@businesslive.co.za

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