With just 380 megawatts of capacity presently available locally against an expected winter peak of 620MW, the Botswana Power Corporation (BPC) load management programme stands between consumers and total darkness, cold and desolation. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI, reports on what is probably an African first in electricity demand management
The BPC is presently producing 220 megawatts locally from two units at Morupule B. One unit is running at its full capacity of 150MW, while the other is only generating 70. The other two units at the multi-billion Pula power station are undergoing repairs, officials report.
In addition to this supply, the corporation also receives 160MW from emergency diesel plants located in Orapa and Matshelagabedi, an expensive alternative originally designed to be run only during temporary shortfalls.
The Orapa power station, for example, burns 17,000 litres of diesel an hour and can only be run in cycles of 10 hours, limiting its contribution but not its expense.
From South Africa, the BPC has a 100MW supply contract set to expire in December and access to the little that is available from the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP).
The BPC’s dilemma and the source of the ongoing widespread and sporadic power cuts nationwide, is that demand this winter has already reached 550MW creating a 70MW shortfall. This will become worse if demand hits 620MW during the coldest months of June and July, which would necessitate more severe load-shedding.
Added to this, South Africa cuts off all supplies to Botswana whenever it is forced to implement load-shedding, which in the past few months has been a near daily occurrence.
“The possibility of load-shedding at anytime should not be ruled out,” says the BPC’s marketing and communications manager, Spencer Moreri.
“We are only stable when there are three units running and this time around, there is nowhere to find the extra electricity.”
No extra supply is available because the entire SAPP is experiencing winter and high electricity demand. In addition, southern Africa has battled against generation shortfalls for years.
By March 31, 2014, the last available figures indicated that the SAPP had an available capacity of 52,405MW against a demand of 49,563 MW, giving a regional capacity shortfall of 4,592 MW.
Winter in the region also coincides with the highest prices for electricity traded between the various countries, meaning the BPC’s participation in SAPP electricity auctions to support shortfalls comes at a premium.
While the remaining units at Morupule are expected to start generating soon, previous technical troubles at the power station suggest consumers should not hold their breath.
“Barring the unforeseen, we expect the two remaining units to become available soon,” Moreri says.
“We are doing everything to make sure of that.”
With the precarious current and forecast power supply balance, consumers’ fate this winter lies in an innovative load management programme, which is likely to be the first of its kind in Africa.
Under the programme, the BPC is limiting the amount of electricity available to households in Gaborone, Francistown, Lobatse, Selebi-Phikwe and Jwaneng this winter, in an effort to avoid load shedding.
Under the programme, supply to targeted households is limited to 10 amps between the peak periods of 6am to 10am and 6pm to 10pm.
While the load management programme is only being experienced for the first time this winter, it actually kicked off in November 2009, when the residents of Block 7 in Gaborone became the pilot recipients of new, high-tech smart meters.
The smart meters, according to the BPC and its technical partners, would give the utility the ability to remotely switch off geysers and also remotely limit power supply to targeted households.
“The smart meters installed have a facility to be remotely configured to limit load to required levels. The level of load limit will be determined by the extent of supply constraint being experienced,” the BPC said in its 2010 Annual Report.
The smart meters are also capable of switching power off to targeted households and groups of consumers.
Under the programme, the smart meters communicate with a central system located at project contractor’s offices through a hybrid communication channel using radio signals similar to the ones used for cellphone communication.
According to Moreri, by implementing the load management system this winter, the BPC will be able to shave 60MW off the national grid, reducing the need for wholesale load-shedding.
“The situation, however, remains precarious and consumers should expect that there are chances that we may have to cut supply without warning,” he cautions.
“The load management programme is the first step but if more load is required to be shed, we will send the signal to your smart meter to switch off.”
The programme kicked-off on May 4, sparking furore among consumers who suddenly found themselves individually switched off and isolated for ‘not knowing technical power usage terminology’.
While the BPC says six lights and the television can be kept on, the countless combinations of appliance usages and variables such as standard versus HD decoders have consumers in a fix.
“How do I know when I’m near to exceeding this 10amps,” asks Veronica Olatotse, a new mother in Block 5.
“Every time I warm anything for my baby, from the geyser to formula, the power cuts off and returns after hours.
Why should I be punished for the BPC’s failures and how am I expected to become an electricity usage expert overnight?”
Responding to the furore, the BPC says the load limit will allow consumers to take charge of their usage and conserve electricity. For instance, says Moreri, a consumer can switch off a few lights, then switch on one plate of an electric stove.
The trial and error method can be refined by going to the smart meter and pressing ‘864’ then ‘enter’ seven times. At this point, the smart meter will display the amount of amps currently in use, so that the consumer may adjust appropriately.
Moreri says the corporation is boosting its communication this winter with a Facebook page (Botswana-Power-Corporation) and a Twitter account due soon.
“We are also looking into SMS notifications, but these will not be specific to an affected area. We hope to have this running soon,” he says.
Cold comfort, however, for the consumers for whom this winter can only get colder and darker.