Urgent action needed to prevent overloading of the power network

Published Jun 24, 2024


Tshifularo Mashava

With overnight and early morning temperatures already hovering close to 0°C and in some occasions dipping slightly below the freezing point, the primal instinct of needing to keep warm has naturally kicked in.

And true to the universal principle of causality, City Power, Johannesburg Metropolitan’s energy utility on the other end, has already started feeling weighed down by the excessive pressure of the high electricity consumption burden on the network.

Over the past few years, the population of Johannesburg has been growing at an average rate of more than 2% each year, deepening the demand for electricity services even further. This, mingled with myriad challenges such as illegal connections and the overall carefree culture of high electricity consumption, have brought City Power to a critical juncture.

The current surge in energy demand has reached dangerously high and unprecedented levels. That’s why we are sounding the alarm so loudly. The strain on the system is palpable, and urgent action is required to prevent the collapse of the system.

The Strain on the System

To paint this picture a little more vividly, imagine a gas or fluid substance contained in a confined or closed system. The more temperature or volume you add, the more pressure builds up within that system. If that pressure continues to build up beyond the limit of its containing walls, cracks will start to form with the possibility of a sudden burst or explosion increasing with each passing second, as the pressure seeks to escape the confined space.

This is no different to the situation we are currently facing as City Power.

Before electricity reaches you as a customer, it travels through high-voltage transmission lines and as it approaches residential areas, it transitions to smaller, local distribution lines. These lines carry power to substations, where it undergoes a transformation to a lower voltage suitable for household use.

From there, it again flows through underground and overhead power cables, finally reaching your home. Now if the pressure from commercial and household use starts exceeding the bounds or capacity limits of those cables, substations and other essential components of the power network, it will build up in the system and eventually explode. This will destroy infrastructure and likely cause the collapse of the grid in the process.

With temperatures dropping particularly during peak hours – mornings from 04h00 to 10h00 and afternoons from 16h00 to 22h00 – we have picked up a very sharp surge in electricity usage in certain high-density areas, pushing the pressure to the absolute limits.

Alexandra, Freedom Park, Nasrec, Hospital Hill, Mayibuye, Naturena, Florida and others have recorded concerning usage levels that threaten to overload our electricity infrastructure.

The Last Resort: Load Reduction

The chances of the power grid collapsing is the eventuality we are trying to avoid by all means necessary. City Power’s plea to customers has been clear: reduce electricity consumption immediately. The entity has gone on to say that failure to heed this call will force the implementation of load reduction measures.

But what does load reduction mean? Simply put, it means reducing the amount of electricity supply to specific areas, to lower the risk of overloading and damage to the regional or localised grid. This happens when the customers’ demand is higher than the demand the local equipment can withstand.

This comes as the utility’s last-ditch effort to protect the network from collapse. If equipment overloads and explodes, we face prolonged outages, impacting health care, small businesses, schools, and vulnerable individuals who rely on uninterrupted power.

Load Management initiatives

In a bid to address comprehensively the risk of overloading the network, while continuing to provide power supply with limited interruptions, City Power has rolled out a host of measures to unburden the system.

Through collective excellence, working with communities we serve, we believe that we can eradicate this immediate threat and ensure that residents of the city can continue to receive quality and reliable electricity services.

Addressing illegal connections

Illegal connections are, without doubt, one of the largest contributing factors to network overload. Those unauthorised connections mainly stem from the informal settlements which are part of the housing challenge in the country and more pronounced in the City of Johannesburg.

With tens of thousands of people migrating to the city each year for social and economic opportunities, the need for housing grows even more. Because of budgetary limitations, it is becoming increasingly difficult to formalise those settlements and provide services such as electricity at a faster rate compared to the pace at which informal dwellings are mushrooming.

For example, by the end of this year, we would have electrified three informal settlements, but while that is happening, it’s likely that even more such settlements would have emerged. There are over 312 informal settlements in the city and despite efforts to formalise many over the years, that figure doesn’t seem to drop.

Now once they have settled in these areas without services, the residents start tapping into nearby transformers unlawfully, adding an enormous amount of unplanned load. As a result of this, a high number of transformers and mini-substations get damaged and destroyed, causing prolonged outages.

This is also observed in formal settlements with backyard dwellings. Residents illegally connect to our network to provide power supply to their backyard dwellings without incurring electricity costs.

To address this, City Power will be intensifying raids and cut-off operations, targeted at illegal connections

Solar micro-grids

While cutting off and removing illegal connections is helpful, it’s not sustainable because that doesn’t offer an alternative.

In an effort to address that, City Power, as part of its 10-point plan adopted last year, has embarked on a project of installing solar micro-grids in informal settlements.

So far, the entity has successfully mounted 1MVA solar grid at Amarasta informal settlement in Alexandra. That facility is providing electricity to around 500 households. We are now in the process of installing two other micro-grids, one at Vukani informal settlement in Alexandra, which will be followed by another in Shalazile/Denver informal settlement.

Not only is this providing a viable alternative energy source, it is also contributing to our efforts to reduce an over-reliance on Eskom.

There 14 other informal settlements across the City of Johannesburg that are earmarked for this project. The micro-grids, in a nutshell, are local electricity grids that serve small populations, often powered by renewable resources and able to function independently from a larger network.

Ripple relays

City Power has installed more than 190 000 ripple relay receivers in different households across the city.

A ripple receiver is part of a load management system used to control the electricity supply to the geyser during peak hours and load shedding. Geysers are among the biggest electricity guzzlers, accounting for up to 50% of monthly household energy costs.

Earlier this year, we undertook a project of auditing those devices to see if they are all still functioning and, if not, replacing them on the spot

Solar geysers

The entity has also embarked on a project of increasing the installation of solar geysers in low-income households across the city, removing another bulk of weight from the grid.

This year alone, we are planning to install a total of 5398 solar geysers, at no cost to the recipients. So far, more than 3000 have been fitted.

Smart meters

To further assist customers in saving energy without being completely switched off, City Power will implement load limiting through smart meters from July.

When the demand is high, the entity will remotely put a cap on usage. So, for instance, a customer will not be able to switch on all heavy-consuming appliances such as geysers, pool pumps, floor heaters, kettles and other appliances at the same time. It will trip and force customers to only use necessities until the pressure on the system subsides.

Load curtailment

City Power is furthermore continuing with signing load curtailment agreements with large power users and bigger businesses to allow us to request them to reduce production during certain periods to assist in alleviating the pressure on the grid.

Balancing Act: Load shedding and Load reduction

While load shedding is currently suspended, load reduction remains a necessary intervention to protect the network. If energy consumption doesn’t decrease, we risk an extended load reduction period. So, what can you do?

Spare Electricity: Use electricity sparingly. Turn off non-essential appliances. Every kilowatt matters.

High-Density Areas, Take Note: If you live in Alexandra, Freedom Park, or other high-density zones, your role is crucial. Be mindful of your energy use.

Cold Weather Preparedness: City Power is doing its part, but co-operation from customers is essential. Extreme cold weather is coming – let’s keep the lights on.

In this delicate balance, we all play a part. Let’s protect our network, avoid load reduction, and ensure a stable power supply for all. Together, we can weather the winter without leaving anyone in the dark.

Mashava is City Power CEO.