On the Beach

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Load shedding

I often think that  being a European expat (of sorts) in Cape Town isn't really like being an expat at all. Sometimes it feels like someone tore a bit off Europe and glued it onto the bottom of South Africa. In transit, that bit lost a little bit of European character,  gained some American elements and, over time, has acquired some African traits. Still, some days- if you squint a little- it kind of seems a little like Europe.

That's why, as you drift through  your not wildly different life in Cape Town. it seems odd to suddenlybe reminded of the fact you are not living in an altogether developed country.

One of these reminders is the yearly talk of "load shedding" in South Africa. When I first heard the phrase, I'll admit I thought it was something closer to a bodily function.

For those who have not heard of  load shedding actually is: "rolling blackout, also referred to as load shedding, is an intentionally engineered electrical power shutdown where electricity delivery is stopped for non-overlapping periods of time over different parts of the distribution region. Rolling blackouts are a last-resort measure used by an electric utility company to avoid a total blackout of the power system." (Thank you, Wikipedia).

It had been a bigger problem in the past than it is now, the worst year being 2008 when they entire country experienced blackouts and the whole national grid almost collapsed. Broadly speaking, the problem stems from some power stations having been mothballed in the late 80s when demanded exceeded supply. Following the demise of Apartheid, investment and output increased, and demand exceeded supply.  Mismanagement, ineptitude and inefficiency in the supplier of 95% of the country's electricity ( government owned Eskom) meant that, in 2008, the government said that there would be load shedding until this year when supply  would once again exceed demand. Given that we operate on African Time, I can tell  you with some certainty (having lived here for nearly 3 years) that we will continue to have load shedding this  year and probably for a few more.

On the radio, Eskom urges us to conserve power during times of peak demand (6-9pm). Helpfully, they say we should dress warmly and turn heaters off (most South Africans eschew any form of home heating and walk around their homes bundled up like they're about to hit the slopes at Chamonix anyway, so this is rather  like trying to teach your grandmother to suck eggs (as an aside, i have never understood this phrase as I have never seen my grandmother or, indeed, someone else's trying to suck eggs)). They also say we must switch off  the geyser (the boiler- not the geezer, would be nice to be able to switch geezers off, I think), minimise lighting and not use electrical appliances during this time. You know, during the time when it gets dark and everyone has supper. The message is always finished with an energetic: "Eskom: powering the nation.". It makes me smile every single time and i cannot believe that no one in Eskom has picked up on the irony of it.

Turns out there is a loading shedding schedule (which I only found out about because someone mentioned it by-the-by on my Neighbourhood Watch Facebook page. Note to WC government: you might want to spread the word more). It seems that all parts of Cape Town take turns to potentially be blacked out-  every area gets 2 evenings a week.

Please don't get me wrong- I am all for energy conservation in the name of minimising human impact on the planet. I don't need or want my house lit up like a Christmas tree, I don't like dozens of appliances making noise and I don't need to have my house at tropical temperatures. 

At this point, however, South Africa can and should be doing better. South Africa is a large country but with relatively low population density: 50 million people in a land mass that is over 5 times larger than the UK- and at the end of 2011 only 85% of those people had access to electricity. 

Eskom really ought to start living up to its catchphrase of powering up the nation. Or at the very least to remove the phrase from the end of public information messages where it is telling that us  it is incapable of doing that very thing.

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