‘A time bomb’: How load shedding is wrecking SA’s substations | Business


  • Load shedding and vandalism are wreaking havoc on South Africa’s more than 3 000 municipal substations. 
  • The infrastructure is also ageing.
  • Stage 6 load shedding in particular is draining the resources of many municipalities.
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The country’s more than 3 000 ageing municipal substations are increasingly blowing up, adding to South Africans’ electricity woes. Load shedding and vandalism have piled pressure on substations.

The substations are also targeted by thieves, who damage the infrastructure in search of cables. They increasingly target substations during load shedding, says Robert Ferrier, general manager of electrical and energy services at Buffalo City Metro, which has seen multiple substation outages.

Load shedding also causes substations to trip, particularly when the power comes back on after an outage.

“Due to all the load coming on at the same time in a particular pocket, the power often trips and shuts off again. Hence, once would experience this as power coming on, and a few minutes later, it is off,” says Beverley van Reenen, mayoral committee member for energy for the City of Cape Town.

Municipalities are struggling with ageing electricity infrastructure that is old and dilapidated due to a lack of maintenance, refurbishment and investment, says Vally Padayachee, a power and energy expert.

“We have been sitting on a time bomb. It is estimated that the backlog is approximately R60 to R90 billion in terms of electricity distribution infrastructure,” he says. 

“The damage to municipal electricity distribution includes distribution substations, cables, switchgear and circuit breakers which can catch alight and blow up. This infrastructure was not designed to experience the impact of load sustained and intense load shedding,” says Padayachee.  

Ferrier says the repair and replacement of substations have become a headache for municipalities, which are already struggling to keep up with ordinary maintenance of infrastructure.

The toll that load shedding is taking on infrastructure is adding even more pressure on substations. These repairs and replacement of equipment could cost “hundreds of millions of rands”, he added. 

“Many municipalities don’t have the budget and resources to repair damaged electricity infrastructure once they get damaged by load shedding,” says Padayachee. 

Stage 6 load shedding in particular is draining the resources of many municipalities, he added.

While some substations are switched off remotely for load shedding, in many municipalities, substations must be switched off manually for higher stages of load shedding.

In these instances, municipalities must send a qualified electrician to do it.

Padayachee says that this becomes complex beyond Stage 5 because additional substations need to be switched off in a short period of time, which requires more manpower and resources. There aren’t enough highly skilled and qualified electricians to accommodate the additional manual switching on and off of power stations beyond Stage 5.

Other municipal infrastructure also continues to suffer under record intensive load shedding. Wastewater treatment plants and sewage pump equipment have become faulty leading to water shortages, sewage pump blockages, and shortages in water supply.

Recently, the City of Cape Town warned of water supply shortages and sewage spillages related to load shedding, while the Breede Valley municipality urged residents to boil water after its water and waste-water treatment facilities were hit by power outages.

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