Nelson Mandela Bay counts the cost of ailing power network

21 September 2020 - 07:45 By Michael Kimberley
This unlocked substation in Booysen Park has a number of illegal connections which contribute to the localised power outages in Nelson Mandela Bay
SHOCKING SITUATION: This unlocked substation in Booysen Park has a number of illegal connections which contribute to the localised power outages in Nelson Mandela Bay
Image: WERNER HILL

Every day. That is how often Nelson Mandela Bay is hit with a power outage not linked to load-shedding.

As businesses and residents struggle with water outages, load-shedding and Covid-19 setbacks, the constant power outages are creating more havoc.

Reasons cited for the outages range from oil circuit breakers tripping to bad weather and illegal connections.

The city urgently needs R700m in the next five years to address the crippling infrastructure backlog.

The average number of outages stems from a count of municipal notifications sent to a media WhatsApp group whenever a section of the city loses power.

An analysis of these notifications for September shows:

  • Most outages are caused by oil circuit breakers, with 14 tripping since the start of the month;
  • Overhead lines losing power twice;
  • Emergency repair work needed on a feeder, two oil circuit breakers and one overhead line; and 
  • Two substations going off line.

On Friday afternoon, an oil circuit breaker at the Bethelsdorp substation was the latest to trip, affecting sections of Missionvale and Windvogel.

An oil circuit breaker trips — often due to a faulty transformer, cables or overhead lines — to prevent a substation exploding.

These illegal connections are at a substation in Avro Street in the Airport Valley informal settlement. Bricks have been removed to provide easy access for the connections. There are also live wires running across the road.
PLAYING WITH FIRE: These illegal connections are at a substation in Avro Street in the Airport Valley informal settlement. Bricks have been removed to provide easy access for the connections. There are also live wires running across the road.
Image: WERNER HILLS

A handful of the outage notifications do not include a reason for the power cut, nor a time frame when power will be restored.

According to the Bay’s Integrated Development Plan (IDP), the city’s electricity network is a mixture of aged and relatively new infrastructure.

“The majority is older, with some equipment older than 40 years. It is therefore urgent that a major upgrade, refurbishment, and replacement take place,” it says.

“The current condition of the electrical infrastructure requires a major injection of funds and manpower to bring it to acceptable conditions in line with national standards and the expectation of electricity users.”

The R700m is needed to upgrade some of the city’s 3,000 substations, overhead lines and cables.

Municipal spokesperson Mthubanzi Mniki said the oil circuit breakers inside and outside substations were being properly maintained.

He said the substation equipment maintenance operating budget was R2.9m, with R344,171 spent so far for the 2021/2022 financial year.

Asked if this budget was adequate, he replied: “No.”

Mniki said load-shedding also had an impact on the outdated infrastructure.

“It was never designed to be used excessively, thus resulting in more faults and outages and shortening  the lifespan of the equipment,” he said.

Energy expert Chris Yelland said if the outages were compared with a world standard,  they would be classified as “abnormally high”.

“However, it is not unusual in SA’s metros, and most outages are likely due to cable and overhead conductor theft along with outdated infrastructure.”

In Auburn Street, Booysens Park, the door to the substation is open and live wires cross the road.
DEADLY NETWORK: In Auburn Street, Booysens Park, the door to the substation is open and live wires cross the road.
Image: WERNER HILLS

Yelland said a lack of maintenance played a big part in outages around the country, and said it was odd that a metro the size of the Bay still used oil circuit breakers.

“The use of oil circuit breakers shows the age of the system.

“These types of breakers went out of fashion 25 years ago.”

Yelland said they were dangerous and a municipality the size of the Bay should not be using them.

“If they fail, you are talking about a major fire.

“The municipality should have replaced them a long time ago.”

Businesses, already struggling to deal with Covid-19, water shortages and load-shedding, are hardest hit as no warnings are given before the outages.

The outages are costing them hard-earned revenue, with power disruptions lasting up to four hours at a time.

On Thursday, an oil circuit breaker tripped at the Arlington substation in Glendore Road, Port Elizabeth, leaving Broadwood, Walmer Heights and Providentia without power.

Excell Catering Equipment owner Henry Kriel said he had intended to finalise several quotations when the power went off at about 2pm.

“Instead, I was forced to wake up at 4am on Friday to catch up,” he said.

He said there had been no prior warning and electricity was only restored after 4pm that Thursday.

“Covid-19 hit us like a ton of bricks, and we are forced to deal with load-shedding and water shortages. Then we have these outages on top of all of that,” he said.

Nine days earlier, Kadiro Buno’s Makka Shop in Bloemendal was left in darkness.

The outage at the Bloemendal substation also affected Palmridge, Aspen Heights and Heath Park.

“Often, we are forced to close the shop as we can’t operate without electricity,” Buno said.

“We turn customers away and close the doors.”

Buno said he had assumed the September 9 outage was due to load-shedding.

“The power goes on and off all the time. We lose money. We sell cooked chickens and cold drinks.”

KwaNobuhle hairdresser Onele Cembi, who runs Odds ’n Odz Dread Salon, said he was often forced to turn away customers during the outages.

A feeder at the Mabandla substation was switched off for emergency repairs last Thursday, causing an outage that lasted a few hours.

“When I don’t have power I turn customers away, and I am losing money,” Cembi said.  

Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber CEO Nomkhita Mona said the business sector was severely affected by localised outages, particularly in the industrial and commercial districts.

“These outages result in significant reputation and productivity losses to SMMEs as well as some of the biggest employers in the local economy,” she said.

Mona said the outages should be seen as an extremely dire situation, considering thousands of jobs were at risk due to the economic recession.

“We have requested an urgent meeting with officials from the municipality to discuss solutions to their current challenges.”

She said the electrical challenges were due to a combination of issues such as an extensive maintenance backlog, electricity losses due to illegal connections, theft and tampering.

Yelland said the city probably needed to start replacing infrastructure as maintenance was no longer helping.

“It is like an old car. Sometimes it costs more to maintain and it becomes cheaper to buy a new one.”

He said the cables were probably failing, and causing the oil circuit breakers to trip, due to the constant repairs.

“At some point equipment reaches the end of its life. You need to replace it.”

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