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WATCH | Eskom’s load-shedding is a Catch-22 dilemma for City Power in Joburg

Electricians must halt work on faults to manually switch off suburbs

23 May 2022 - 09:42
City Power electrician Patrick Hlungwani explains how some parts of Johannesburg have to be manually switched off during load-shedding.
City Power electrician Patrick Hlungwani explains how some parts of Johannesburg have to be manually switched off during load-shedding.
Image: Phathu Luvhengo

Shortly before load-shedding is due to start, City Power electrician Patrick Hlungwani leaves his usual daily duties attending to power outages and faults in Johannesburg to drive to a substation as instructed by the control room.

Hlungwani and his partner Siboniso Khumalo divert their attention to a new task: ensuring the correct suburbs are plunged into darkness according to the load-shedding schedule. This must be done by manually switching off substations that cannot be switched off remotely.

City Power has about 100 main substations, of which about 68 can be controlled remotely while the rest must be physically switched off and on by roving teams of technicians.

The entity’s Scada, a remote switching system coverage, is around 33% of the 268 substations and substations which are on the system and sometimes require manual operation due to theft and rush overloads.

Last Thursday TimesLIVE accompanied them to a substation in Mondeor that needed switching off. Shortly after 5pm they had turned off Mondeor, South Gate and surrounding areas.

“We do our normal maintenance job but when Eskom instructs us to do the load-shedding, we stop everything and focus on load-shedding,” he said.

In the case of outages and unplanned interruptions that must be attended to simultaneously, they try to rope in colleagues who could be off duty to help.

“You need somebody because you are busy attending to the fault. There is load-shedding that must be done so you phone somebody. Remember the person you are calling is not on shift, he is off, maybe he is not even in Gauteng,” he said.

City Power spokesperson Isaac Mangena said load-shedding was an emergency and took priority. 

Inside the control room at the affected substations the electricians have to switch off transformers and then return when it is time to restore electricity in that area.

Mangena said while load-shedding stretches their strained resources, forcing them to divide them between load-shedding and normal outages, they always strive to have operators available for load-shedding and day-to-day interruptions, which is not easy.

The reality is financial and operational damage is being done, and this will be felt after load-shedding stops
City Power spokesperson Isaac Mangena

“Some areas, especially those along the border suburbs, are being load-shed by Eskom on our behalf, such as Randburg, Roodepoort and Lenasia. Operators are dispatched only when required in situations where the system was unable to restore remotely, which is more than half of our substations,” he said.

He said load-shedding had a detrimental effect on the city’s electrical grid. The  infrastructure that is not only aged but carries a R26bn backlog.

The backlog the entity is urgently addressing includes infrastructure and also involves upgrading existing substations, cabling, providing power to newly formed settlements and dealing with the pernicious problem of illegal connections.

“The impact of load-shedding is so severe on the ageing infrastructure that it immediately reduces its lifespan. By its nature electricity infrastructure was never meant to be switched on and off at regular short intervals. The reality is financial and operational damage is being done, and this will be felt after load-shedding stops,” he cautioned.

Hlungwani is not overly concerned about manually load-shedding areas, but does worry about switching them back on as some circuit breakers trip due to overloading. The trips happen to safeguard equipment from further damage.

While restoring power on Thursday after load-shedding, the Meredale South distributor from a substation tripped due to overloading. This means more City Power staff must restore power in the affected area bit by bit to prevent overloading.

This process can take a few hours, effectively “extending” the duration of load-shedding to the affected area.

“We are the A-level operators. This means the B-level operators have to go to the ground and split out the load on that section and restore electricity in sections until the entire area is restored. This can take up to six hours,” said Hlungwani.

Mangena said rebooting the power grid was to the detriment of already aged infrastructure and heightened its risk of failure.

“Adding to this, whenever there is load-shedding the aged network also takes extreme strain due to the massive load-shifting and an in surge happening when power is restored. The system trips on overload and at times, the mini substations, pole-mounted transformers and even cables blow up,” he said.

Remotely controlled substations in the city are switched off and on via City Power’s state-of-the-art nerve centre. 

Mangena said the latest round of load-shedding comes as City Power was recovering from the impact of previous bouts of load-shedding, coupled with inclement weather when temperatures dropped and demand for power increased.

Load-shedding is an undesired inconvenience that unfortunately we have little or no control over
City Power spokesperson Isaac Mangena

“It is a double-edged sword.”

An overstretched workforce, rampant theft and vandalism, equipment failure and obtaining material needed for repairs all contribute to the bigger picture.

City Power is seeing an increase in the number of outages related to load-shedding.

Most localised faults seen during the rolling blackouts are due to vandalism and theft which happens when the network is switched off.

“Criminals take advantage and tamper with the electricity infrastructure, leading to post-load-shedding outages. We try to beef up teams to ensure we respond quicker and restore power after load-shedding. The procurement of material is going well, with more cables, joints and fuses being delivered to ensure we are able to quickly respond.

“We have increased security patrols in the hotspots to address cable theft and vandalism. However, load-shedding is an undesired inconvenience that unfortunately we have little or no control over,” he said.

City Power does not make money during load-shedding (when affected customers are not using power) and loses millions due to its impact on infrastructure, equipment that fails and overtime as additional teams are needed on the ground.

During load-shedding, City Power is unable to do planned maintenance for safety reasons in addition to stretched resources.

“We are forced to divide ourselves between attending to regular outage faults and attend to load-shedding. When there is load-shedding we are not able to attend to most outage calls and we are not able to do maintenance.”

City Power will host an Energy Indaba on Monday and Tuesday to find solutions to its challenges, such as bringing new alternative energy into the mix to reduce reliance on Eskom.

“It seems load-shedding is going to stay with us longer and forces us to review our projections, strategies and plans, and work on finding other means to mitigate against rolling blackouts.”

The entity has also started in-house training for trainees who will be equipped to deal with basic breakdowns and outages, thereby freeing capacity among contractors to deal with high-voltage problems and more complex issues.

“This will also free up much needed funds that would have otherwise been spent on contractors dealing with minor mishaps and outages,” said Mangena.

Hlungwani, who has worked in the city for about 26 years, will continue dashing between substations as long as there is load-shedding.

“They are saying if we don’t do this we will lose the entire network,” he said.

— Additional reporting: Thabo Tshabalala

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