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How this South African town avoids rolling blackouts

Picture: Grobler du Preez/Dreamstime
Picture: Grobler du Preez/Dreamstime

Sixteen years after the first rolling blackouts started, South Africa has still not solved its electricity crisis. One small town, however, has found a way out.

Residents of Clarens, an arts town in the Free State province, are now able to respond to signals from state-owned power utility Eskom to scale back their electricity use when the national grid is under strain, rather than having it cut off completely.

The town already has a relatively high penetration of rooftop solar systems and smart meters, and worked with Eskom on designing the new arrangement.

“Load curtailment is not a new concept as many municipalities and large customers country-wide have long been managing their own demand during times of supply constraints,” Bibi Bedir, Eskom’s senior manager for retail in the Free State, said in a statement.

“The concept of ‘group curtailment’ — where a community manages its own load curtailment — was however piloted in Clarens,” Bedir said.

To succeed, group curtailment requires the collective community to reduce load when requested.

Once a system emergency is declared and the rest of the country braces for rolling blackouts, Eskom gives a nominated group coordinator in Clarens two hours’ notice of load curtailment. The coordinator then passes on the message via a purpose-built app, and households must decide which appliances and equipment they’ll switch off to achieve the required demand reduction.

Throughout load-shedding stages 1 to 4, households must reduce their power use by 10% to 20%.

Eskom monitors how the community is doing, and has warned that three instances of non-compliance will result in the reinstatement of normal load-shedding.

A meter installed at the town’s main point of power supply sends real-time consumption statistics to residents via the app, prompting further demand reduction action, if required.

“For a town that depends on tourism, not being subjected to load-shedding is life changing,” said Gert Kruger, Clarens’ group coordinator. “Although the success depends on the voluntary participation of residents and businesses, we have the community’s support as everyone benefits from cooperating.”

“Feedback from visitors, restaurants and accommodation establishments is very positive and without the noise of generators, tourists can enjoy Clarens’ natural beauty.”

The project has been a success so far and could be a blueprint for others to follow, Eskom said.

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