Falling Off-Grid in South Africa

Spencer Hey
An electricity blackout event in Johannesburg
An electricity blackout event in Johannesburg courtesy of Bloomberg

It’s not every day that a utility is so poorly run that someone tries to poison its CEO. Yet, after a record-breaking year of electricity blackouts across South Africa, state-owned utility Eskom accepted the resignation of its eleventh CEO in 10 years.
We’re just glad that nobody “fell” out of a window. 
What’s happening: Load shedding events – a cheerful euphemism for rolling blackouts – are becoming more common and increasingly severe across South Africa, leading to temporary blackouts during some 200 days in 2022 and daily blackouts so far this year.
These planned load shedding events, which have been occurring in various stages of severity for nearly a decade, are needed to prevent widespread grid collapse when Eskom’s power facilities can’t meet demand. This is largely due to a chronic failure to invest in maintaining and improving aging infrastructure.

Hours of South African load shedding per year, 2016-22

Hours of South African load shedding per year, 2016-22
Data courtesy of EskomSePush

Energy availability across South Africa has been in decline for years. At its worst point last year, over half of South Africa’s roughly 48 gigawatts of capacity was offline due to mechanical failures, maintenance, and other similar issues.

This brought Eskom’s Energy Availability Factor (EAF) — the percentage of network capacity that is currently producing power — to below 50 percent.

Eskom’s Energy Availability Factor (EAF), 2016-22
percentage of capacity currently producing power

Eskom’s Energy Availability Factor
Chart courtesy of EE Business Intelligence; data courtesy of Eskom

Economic consequences: Beyond the daily inconvenience of having to continuously reset microwave clocks, grid instability has significantly impacted South Africa’s ability to grow, or even maintain, economic development.

The load shedding events have already reduced national GDP by more than 2 percent, according to South Africa’s Nedbank.

  • This puts pressure on businesses and public services of all kinds, who are already struggling with a 33 percent unemployment rate and now struggle to operate without the one thing they all require: power.

Bigger picture: Many countries around the world struggle to maintain reliable access to power, and nearly 1 billion people on the planet don’t have access at all. Yet, despite being Africa’s most advanced economy, South Africa’s struggles with energy indicate a serious and unfortunate sign of decline.

This cautionary tale highlights the true consequences of not investing in aging infrastructure, grid reliability, and energy expansion as demand for electricity grows with a population. This is a challenge many economies face across the world today, include in the West, as they attempt to prepare their power grids for the future.

Bottom line: Despite being the backbone of any advancing nation, energy utilities are historically right up there with the Maple Leafs losing in the first round as “things we take for granted”.

Even though many of us have an expensive, high-maintenance relationship with our local utility, it’s still worth sending them “I appreciate you” flowers this Valentine’s Day. In spite of their faults (pun intended), it’s likely that your utility is still managing to do the one thing that Eskom isn’t: keeping the lights on.

+Additional Reading:South Africa Faces Two More Years of Power Cuts

++Additional Reading: South Africa’s Energy Crises Deepens as Blackouts Hit 12 Hours A Day