Load shedding is zapping billions from the economy in lost productivity and production, as well as damaged equipment. But all hope is not lost

A report by principal engineer Jarrad Wright and senior engineer Joanne Calitz at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) shows that load shedding has cost the South African economy nearly R338 billion over the past decade.

The report, entitled “Setting up for the 2020s: Addressing South Africa’s electricity crisis and getting ready for the next decade”, states that last year alone the power outages cost the country between R60 billion and R120 billion.

Minerals Council South Africa – a mining-industry employer organisation – notes in its “Position on Eskom’s regulatory clearing account adjustment application” that 418,5 hours (or 30 days) were lost due to load shedding last year. This amounts to estimated production losses of between R7 billion and R12 billion in the mining industry.

All hope isn’t lost, however, as various organisations are stepping up to address this dire situation. One such company is Rand-Air (part of the global Atlas Copco Group), which provides portable air compressors and generator rentals, as well as technical support.

The company’s range of generators runs from 20 kVA models right up to 1100 kVA units. The generators include benchmark safety features and are issued with certificates verifying that they comply with all the relevant safety laws.

All run at 50 Hz but can be adjusted to 60 Hz on request. The power supply can be either single-phase, 220 V, or three-phase, 380 V. Rand-Air also ensures that its customers can safely use its generators by arranging for a qualified electrician to sign off on its installation and issuing a safety certificate at the same time.

Particularly useful are the Changeover Contactor (COC) kits. These are ideal if a customer needs a generator to be on standby that can start supplying electricity automatically.

“Importantly, our generators are supplied with all accessories needed for immediate operation,” says Craig Swart, fleet manager of Rand-Air. This includes distribution boards, cables, joiner boxes, COC kits and transformers if necessary.

He adds that one of the benefits of the 500 kVA generator, and all Rand-Air units below this capacity, is that it is mobile and can easily be moved around sites. Most of these are mounted on trailers.

“While the TwinPower generator is containerised, the benefit of this unit is that it consists of two 500 kVA generators which can deliver variable power according to customers’ demand, which results in overall fuel savings,” he points out.

“When customers hire generators from Rand-Air, they are guaranteed to receive quality equipment. Powering their mining operations with our equipment prevents them from experiencing further outages or breakdowns.”

The mining sector isn’t the only industry taking a massive knock from load shedding, as Plastics SA points out in its newsletter: Commentary on Sate of the Nation Address 2020.

“Conversion methods for plastic fabrication are electricity-intensive and account for roughly five percent of a manufacturer’s operating costs,” the newsletter reports. “Manufacturers and recyclers rely on a consistent supply of high voltage electricity in order for their machines to operate at maximum capacity.”

These machines also have to run 24 hours a day, as it requires a minimum of two to three hours to start up and reach optimal temperature. If power cuts midway through the operation, large amounts of raw materials and resources are wasted, because the machines need to be scraped clean before the operation can begin anew.

This leads to delayed delivery times and increased costs, as the manufacturers have to mitigate their losses. “Because local plastics suppliers were unable to meet deadlines and supply orders in time, foreign competitors gained the upper hand,” the report states.

This had a catastrophic impact: the South African plastics industry employed roughly 60 000 people during the past financial year, who are now faced with uncertainty about their job security.

“Voltage fluctuations are a major cause for concern during normal supply periods, but this is exasperated during load shedding,” the news piece notes. “In many cases, expensive equipment and machines have to be decommissioned or replaced as a result of damage caused by electricity spikes.”

The instability in the electricity grid is increasing the possibility of overvoltage events (especially when the power comes back on).

Christo van Rensburg, product manager at ElectroMechanica (EM) – which distributes overvoltage protection devices from CPT Cirprotec – warns that overvoltage events don’t only damage equipment, but also reduce the lifespan of infrastructure and incur costly downtime for repairs.

With its head office in Barcelona, Spain, CPT Cirprotec has invested in two purpose-built surge-protection test laboratories and has conducted over 30 000 tests to date.

The company employs a team of electrical engineers, is represented on key international standard committees, and invests significantly in research and development.

Its overvoltage protection devices can serve a range of industries, from transportation to energy, water treatment, commercial buildings, data centres, and industrial and residential installations.

Products include modular plug-in Type 2 (protection against induced transient overvoltages) as well as combined Type 1 (devices for discharging lightning currents) and Type 2 surge-protection devices.

With the increasing demand in photovoltaic (PV) installations, EM also offers a PV surge-protection range from CPT Cirprotec.

So, the fight against the crippling effects of load shedding is gaining some ground as companies like Rand-Air and EM are delivering solutions to lessen the impact of power outages and overvoltage events.

It is, however, worrisome to consider how many billions will be wasted in the future: the CSIR warns that load shedding is expected to continue for two to three years – depending on key decisions and actions implemented by the government.

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