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Dear City Power: Customers shouldn’t be blamed for your poor planning

The chief executive of Johannesburg’s City Power Tshifularo Mashava says the company is once again calling on residents to urgently reduce their power consumption as the city’s electricity infrastructure is nearing its breaking point.

City Power has been making these “calls to action” since at least April when the company publically shared on its social media accounts that its infrastructure was “constrained” and if residents didn’t reduce electricity usage, a system overload could take place leaving all the city without power.

Mashava, who penned a lengthy piece published verbatim by IOL, says that the winter temperature drop and the rush of residents to their heaters, kettles and electrical blankets has caused “excessive pressure” and a “burden on the network.”

“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,” Mashava writes.

Why is load reduction the “last resort” when nothing else has been done?

“We have picked up a very sharp surge in electricity usage in certain high-density areas, pushing the pressure to the absolute limits.” She name-drops these areas, which are all receiving bouts of mandated rotating load reduction every morning and evening – Alexandra, Freedom Park, Nasrec, Hospital Hill, Mayibuye, Naturena, and Florida.

Residents, of course, are up in arms.

In the piece, Mashava calls load reduction “the last resort,” implemented because residents have failed and continue to fail to heed City Power’s plea to reduce power consumption immediately. “Failure to heed this call will force the implementation of load reduction measures,” she adds.

The CEO puts nice little pillows around load reduction, saying it means “reducing the amount of electricity supply to specific areas, to lower the risk of overloading.” Load reduction, like load shedding is a PR spin on an old classic: Power blackouts – no power for two hours every morning and night. If it was loadshedding, it would be called loadshedding stage 2.

Load reduction is being placed in the hopes of protecting infrastructure from overloading, she says. “If equipment overloads and explodes, we face prolonged outages, impacting health care, small businesses, schools, and vulnerable individuals who rely on uninterrupted power.”

This is the same reasoning for why Eskom launched loadshedding in the first place, but in a smaller scale. Like load shedding causing untold damage to the economy, load reduction has the same potential and is already affecting industries in Johannesburg.

Excuses, excuses

Mashava then descends into the many excuses for why people who pay their hard-earned money for the electricity they use must deal with power outages, especially during a period where Eskom has actually managed to collect its marbles and pull up its socks.

She blames Johannesburg’s population growth – 2 percent every year. Johannesburg is the fastest-growing metropolis in South Africa, but the country’s other major population zones are not far behind.

Cape Town has just shy of 1 million fewer residents and it has a yearly population growth of 1.8 percent.

While the Western Cape capital has launched consumer power-saving initiatives this year in efforts to end loadshedding in the province, it hasn’t had to resort to load reduction in its high-density areas.

Instead, a number of tenders have been launched by the local government, including the addition of at least 1 500MW in new infrastructure capacity from independent power producers and private firms in the next 10 years.

Unlike the City of Joburg’s own plans to add a meagre 500MW to the local grid by 2030, by the time Cape Town’s new capacity hits their grid, load reduction won’t even be a thought.

As a proud resident of the City of Gold, having to write that Cape Town has better power infrastructure plans than us absolutely sucks. As I’ve written before, winter happens every year and so does population growth, and clearly City Power is aware of it.

The company is very happy to implement outages, but new infrastructure? Dololo.

Where are the new substations City Power?

It seems to me that the “last resort” of load reduction is actually the first resort. How has the Johannesburg Council not planned at all for the yearly population growth in terms of expanding power infrastructure? Well, because despite Johannesburg being the wealthiest region on the continent, its electricity firm has no money.

It is owed billions in outstanding power bills from residents, and in return owes Eskom several billions in its own right. Like Eskom, City Power’s infrastructure is old and poorly maintained. In 2019, the company had a maintenance backlog standing at R170 billion. This amount has likely doubled or tripled since then.

What little money there is, the City is happy to spend millions on methods to curb power consumption on the demand side, with smart meter rollouts and ripple relays that can switch off your geyser automatically, but where are the new substations? Where are the new transformers?

City Power is fighting a battle to get people to use less power instead of allowing more power to flow. This battle is one they are losing. The sabotage of power points and widespread illegal connections across the metropolis drive demand even further.

“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,” adds Mashava.

These problems are unique to Johannesburg. In New York, with nearly double Johannesburg’s population, it is estimated that around 10 to 20 percent of all power connections in Manhattan alone are illegal, and yet New York doesn’t require load reduction.

What Mashava should be doing, instead of placing the onus on paying customers, is taking responsibility for decades of poor planning. A true World-Class African City would have had long-term plans in place to manage to ballooning population’s electricity needs. Especially when Johannesburg is about to get more expensive to live in than ever before.

Unless something changes miraculously and drastically in the city, the lack of proper infrastructure plans in place will grow beyond the power. In a terrifyingly short amount of time, we’ll have another CEO urging customers to reduce water usage as well.

Remember folks, water reduction will be implemented as a “last resort.”

[Image – CC 0 Pixabay]

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