25 May 2023

South Africa's energy provider, Eskom has recently issued statements announcing an urgent increase in the levels of load shedding, greatly curbing the country’s electricity usage. While the concept of electricity blackouts is unheard of in the UK, could we be on a similar trajectory to South Africa? Whitecode’s Managing Director Alex Hill discusses whether the UK’s energy infrastructure is equipped to handle the government’s widespread introduction of new low-carbon technologies.

Eskom enabled load shedding severe as Stage Six over the past week, resulting in South Africans being unable to use electricity for multiple hours during the day. Stage 6 is an extreme power-saving measure, allowing up to 6,000MW to be removed from the power grid, leading to power supply cuts in the impacted area 18 times over a four-day period for four hours at a time. Ministers have warned the public to expect unprecedented Stage Seven and Eight load shedding due to a severe strain on the country’s electricity supply.

I experienced load shedding first-hand during my visit to Whitecode’s South Africa office. During my visit, the government planned a two-hour blackout twice a day, with blackouts occurring at different times each day. During this time, mobile phone masts became ineffective, the internet ground to a halt, and traffic lights became merely ornamental.

This deliberate shutdown of electric power is designed to prevent the failure of the whole power distribution system due to insufficient generation capacity. This can be attributed to multiple generation failures of ageing coal plants that cannot meet the electricity demand of the country's population. To address this problem, the government has been working to shift its energy mix from coal to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, but unfortunately, rolling blackouts are commonplace in South Africa.

Pressures on the UK’s energy infrastructure

Although the UK is unaccustomed to such severe power saving precautions, could we be going the same way as South Africa? In 2021, the UK government announced that from 2030 new petrol and diesel cars will no longer be sold in the UK to help reduce carbon emissions. While this move towards reducing tailpipe emissions is commendable, can the UK’s infrastructure sustain nationwide electric car charging demand? Only two months ago, electricity companies were paying people to switch off as a solution to an electricity capacity crisis in the middle of winter. What will next year look like for the UK as the number of electric vehicles on the road increases?

Likewise, under the Future Homes Standard, new homes will only be able to install energy efficient heating systems to produce 31% lower emissions compared to the current levels. After 2025 gas boilers cannot be installed in new build residential properties, with the government aiming for a target of 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028. While this looks to solve the carbon emissions issue associated with heating, it could cause a significant issue for the UK’s electricity supply.

Potential solutions

South Africa is forced to switch off its electricity despite the detriment to the economy with businesses being rendered unable to trade. Longer term, South Africa requires a greater capacity to generate dispatchable power. While alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power are advantageous, South Africa’s power demand greatly exceeds its supply and requires energy that isn’t dependent on capricious environmental conditions. More dispatchable power could potentially be delivered via gas plants, batteries or pumped storage hydropower.

Many people have implemented diesel generators as a solution, while others with adequate space have adopted batteries and solar photovoltaic (PV) systems which are the more sustainable options. Given the harmful side effects of diesel generators, many advocate for batteries being mandatory in each home with a PV array to charge the batteries. Personally, I am an advocate for batteries and a solar PV in each home as a reliable and sustainable solution. Although, others back the use of cars as batteries, with dual-use ‘car house’ systems being trialled. Whatever the solution, heightened innovation in this area could be a precursor of forced load shedding in the UK.

While load shedding in the UK is not a foregone conclusion, sufficient supply for hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles and heat pumps seems ambitious to say the least. We would do well to heed South Africa’s load shedding situation as a cautionary tale and implement additional streams of power generation before we find ourselves in a situation where forced electricity shutdowns become the norm.



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