‘A ticking time bomb’: how load shedding is wrecking SA substations

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

Substations are also the target of thieves, who damage the infrastructure in search of cables. They increasingly target substations during discharge, says Robert Ferrier, Buffalo City Metro’s general manager of electrical and energy services, who has seen several substation outages.

Load shedding also causes substations to turn on, especially when power is restored after an outage.

“Because of all the charge going on at the same time in a particular pocket, the power often turns on and off again. So you’d experience it once as it would turn on, and a few more minutes late, it will go off,” says Beverley. van Reenen, Member of the City of Cape Town’s Energy Mayoral Committee.

Municipalities are struggling with aging, old and deteriorating electrical infrastructure due to lack of maintenance, renovation and investment, says energy and power expert Vally Padayachee.

“We have been sitting on a ticking time bomb. The backlog is estimated to be around Rs 60,000-90,000 crore in terms of electricity distribution infrastructure,” he says.

“Damage to municipal electricity distribution includes distribution substations, cables, switchgear and circuit breakers that can catch fire and explode. This infrastructure was not designed to experience the impact of sustained loading and load shedding intense,” says Padayachee.

Ferrier says substation repair and replacement has become a headache for municipalities, which already struggle to keep up with routine infrastructure maintenance.

The toll that load shedding is taking on infrastructure further increases the pressure on substations. These repairs and equipment replacements could cost “hundreds of millions of rand”, he added.

“Many municipalities do not have the budget and resources to repair damaged electrical infrastructure once it is damaged by the discharge,” says Padayachee.

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

Although some substations are shut down remotely for discharge, in many municipalities, substations must be shut down manually for higher stages of discharge.

In these cases, municipalities must send a qualified electrician to do this.

Padayachee says this becomes complex beyond stage 5 because additional substations must be switched off in a short period of time, requiring more manpower and resources. There are not enough highly skilled and qualified electricians to accommodate the additional manual switching on and off of power plants beyond stage 5.

Other municipal infrastructures also continue to suffer a record intensive load drop. Sewage treatment plants and sewage pump equipment have become faulty, leading to water shortages, sewage pump blockages and water supply shortages.

The City of Cape Town recently warned of water supply shortages and sewage spills related to load shedding, while Breede Valley Municipality urged residents to boil water water after its water and wastewater treatment facilities were affected by power outages.

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