As Eskom Woes Deepen, Power Cuts Loom for Eswatini

By: Ntombi Mhlongo

As ESKOM woes continue in neighbouring South Africa, Eswatini faces the risk of experiencing the same woes of load shedding currently being experienced by that country.

Eswatini could be forced into implementing loadshedding due to the crisis facing South African power utility, Eskom.

Based on previous incidents, experts in the energy sector fear that Eskom could soon ask Eswatini to lower electricity consumption. Eswatini largely depends on SA for the supply of electricity and in the last month, South Africa has experienced one of the worst periods of rolling blackouts in its history. Eskom had started implementing Stage 6 power cuts, a level that means businesses and homes go without electricity for more than 10 hours a day. The company has since reduced the level to Stage 5, which requires South Africans to go without power for up to eight hours a day.

Eswatini’s power utility, the Eswatini Electricity Company (EEC) and Eskom enjoy a business relationship that spans more than 50 years which is bound by a bilateral agreement limited to 25 years after which it would be then reviewed.

Currently, Eskom and EEC are engaged in bilateral discussions to renew the agreement which comes to an end in 2025.

The power crisis even forced SA President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was in the UK attending Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral to skip a planned address to the United Nations General Assembly and headed home after holding a virtual briefing with cabinet ministers and officials. Some quarters, including the Democratic Alliance, have called on Eskom to stop the supply of electricity to other countries, including Eswatini. The DA said whilst South Africa had been in its darkest period these past few years, Eskom has continued selling and supplying neighbouring countries with electricity – electricity which could have reduced stages of load-shedding for ordinary South Africans if that supply was kept here.

EEC Marketing and Communications Manager Khaya Mavuso said they have been closely monitoring the power challenges faced by one of our suppliers, Eskom who have experienced disturbances in their generation plants leading to load-shedding.  He said EEC, as a member of the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), was expected to adhere to the request by the South African power utility to be able to manage the situation and get demand down to manageable levels.

“While no utility is compelled to reduce demand, it is the responsibility of each of the SAPP members to support each other, especially in this case where Eskom has indicated a likelihood for a shortfall in capacity which is higher than normal. The situation means Eskom’s reserve margins are inadequate compared to where they would have wanted them to be,” Mavuso said.

He said whenever their major supplier was faced with challenges that required load reduction from importers, EEC was also expected to comply by reducing its load, which in turn led to a reduction in imports. “We are, however, in constant communication with our power trading partners and we continue to monitor the situation to ensure that our customers are notified of any further developments,” he said. Mavuso said since the Eskom challenges, EEC had managed to use its internal generation to mitigate the effects of load shedding that would have affected the country. He said they were also looking at delaying planned maintenance on some of our power stations so that they could be in use during the period of challenges by their supplier.

“However, in the event, the situation demands further load reduction, EEC will issue a load shedding plan focusing more on non-industrial loads, as we have done in the past,” he said. Mavuso said in the meantime, they encourage customers to use electricity efficiently so that we do not find ourselves managing the local electricity grid through load-shedding.

Experts in the energy sector said load shedding was inevitable as Eskom did not have an immediate plan to fix the crisis. Another expert said what needed to be noted is that the programmes Eskom has introduced, in particular, the one of securing imports or buying additional surplus power would have to go through processes and will not be finalised in a month. “There are processes that have to be followed to ensure full implementation of the outlined programmes,” he highlighted.

Experts in the energy sector and those in the business fraternity have raised fears that Eskom could soon ask neighbours including Eswatini to lower their consumption of electricity. This is despite that the South African power utility had already launched three programmes to procure much-needed power for the national grid as part of broad measures to address the load-shedding crisis which continues to affect the operations of various sectors of the economy. These programmes are not immediate.

Speaking to the Eswatini Financial Times, the experts argued that despite that Eswatini having an agreement with Eskom, nothing would stop the power utility from requesting that the country should lower consumption due to the pressure it is currently facing. One of the experts said, “When you look at the programmes introduced by Eskom, it does not say anything about the neighbouring countries but we must not be oblivious to the fact that it has happened before. We cannot as a country just sit and relax just because we have a bilateral agreement. The fact is that Eskom is struggling, businesses are affected so any decision can be taken and the power utility cannot be blamed,” the expert said.

Another expert said what needed to be noted is that the programmes Eskom has introduced, in particular, the one of securing imports or buying additional surplus power would have to go through processes and will not be finalised in a month’s time. “There are processes that have to be followed in order to ensure full implementation of the outlined programmes. If the processes take 12 months to be finalised, Eskom could instruct neighbouring countries like Eswatini to reduce consumption at least until a solution is found,” he highlighted.

In July 2012, the Kingdom of Eswatini experienced load-shedding blackouts after Eskom demanded that the country’s purchase of electricity it imports from SA be reduced by more than 20 per cent. At the time, the then Minister of Natural Resources and Energy Princess Tsandzile made it known that the EEC could not achieve such a target alone but needed a concerted effort and participation of the corporate sector. As a result, rolling blackouts lasting one hour and longer commenced without warning and Mbabane, the commercial hub Manzini, and the Matsapha Industrial Estate were affected.

In 2016, Eskom issued an instruction that the Kingdom of Eswatini, with which it has firm power supply agreements, should lower consumption as the power utility attempted to help its regional neighbours offset crippling power shortages. At the time, Eskom had jumped to the rescue of Zimbabwe and Zambia, agreeing to supply both countries with 300 MW each of off-peak power in line with statutes under the Southern African power pool. Analysts estimate that these rolling blackouts cost the South African economy between R500 million and R700 million per stage, per day. Other experts have urged the Eswatini Energy Regulatory Authority to make means to wean Eswatini off the dependence on SA for electricity even before the contract comes to an end in 2025.

Giving an update on the tenders which have been issued by the regulator as a means to allow the country to reach a level of self-sufficiency when it comes to energy sources, ESERA Manager Consumers and Stakeholders’ relations Teclar Dube-Maphosa said as publicly known, around August 2021 the Authority issued an intention to award contracts for the 40MW solar PV. She said, the Authority then received an objection from progressing with the contract award and was subsequently engaged in a legal process to address this development. “This matter is currently sub-judice. We are hopeful it will be resolved as soon as possible as it is a matter of national interest,” she said. She said the biomass procurement totalling circa 40 MW was ongoing with the Authority currently preparing the RFP bid documents with assistance from an appointed   Transactional Advisor. These will then be released to the four successful applicants who made it past the Request for Qualifications stage. The four applicants are ABF Energy Limited, BNM Technology Group, Electricity de France and Eswatini Europe Energy Resource Consortium.

When asked about the capacity of the sugar industry to generate electricity, Maphosa said the capacity of power that can be produced from the sugar industry will amongst other parameters be dependent on the availability of feedstock. “On-going efforts are being undertaken to quantify the resource potential in the sector to ensure accurate information is available on potential generation capacity,” she said.

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