Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Eskom, South Africa's Prince of Darkness

Eskom is the supplier of electrical power to South Africa (and a few other places). Eskom, in fact, is one of the largest electricity generating companies in the world. Like in America, Eskom is owned by its shareholders; unlike America, Eskom has only one shareholder…the government. This makes it a “parastatal” company, one that is not technically owned by the government, but is, in fact, controlled by it.

Due to poor planning…mostly on the part of government…and unexpected population shifts, South Africa is presently experiencing a lot of planned power disruptions. Having lived through the summer of rolling blackouts in California, this is nothing new to me, and I know how to arrange my life around the power outages. Unfortunately, Eskom’s manner of handling the outages is not as efficient as Pacific Gas and Electric’s was, so we are often left in the dark, both literally and figuratively.

I understand the problems Eskom is experiencing and the citizen unrest against them is, in large part, unfair. But since when are people fair? They will yell at a waiter because the food is not properly prepared (when the fault is the cook’s), they will impeach an excellent governor in favour of an arrogant ass of an actor (when the fault was with scheming corporations over which that governor had no control), and they will blame Eskom for insufficient capacity when the fault is with the government for failing to heed Eskom’s warnings and authorize the funds to build more power plants.

That said, however, Eskom must take the rap for its egregious mishandling of the situation with its customers. Good communication can work wonders with a discontented group of people. With clear and proper explanations, people can understand a situation…even if they still don’t like it and remain unhappy with it. But knowledge makes people feel empowered and feeling empowered mitigates, to some degree, their enmity

The first place Eskom falls down is in its use of jargon. I am a reasonably intelligent person, literate and fairly well-informed, and I often have difficulty understanding what Eskom is trying to say. Luckily for me, my husband is a technical manager with Eskom and I can ask him to explain it to me…most South Africans, however, do not have this advantage and therefore remain in the dark. An example of this is when we had an automated shutdown of the local nuke a few years ago and the local news had terrifying headlines about the workers at the power plant “scrambling” to shut the plant down and avoid a catastrophe. Nothing could have been further from the truth. But the Eskom spokesperson who gave the media their information had committed the Sin of Jargon and the media folks who didn’t know the jargon just morphed it into something they did know, and terrifying headlines hit the streets. What the spokesperson had said was that the reactor had SCRAMmed, SCRAM being an industry acronym for a well-controlled automatic safety procedure the reactor engages when the sensors sense anything being even slightly out of whack. Nobody scrambled, no meltdown was narrowly averted, no panic had occurred or was necessary. But because the spokesperson did not explain SCRAM to the media, “the reactor SCRAMmed” was misinterpreted as the reactor crew scrambling and their creative juices flowed from there.

Another, more timely example, is the use of the phrase “load shedding.” What does that mean to you? Personally, I get a mental image of an overburdened little donkey shaking off some of its cargo…certainly nothing even remotely related to a power outage! I assumed my ignorance was due to me being foreign, that “load shedding” was a South African term that they all understood but I didn’t. After a conversation with a local woman last week, however, it became apparent that South Africans haven’t a clue either. They just take is as a euphemism for Eskom intentionally dumping their power.

Well, in one sense they are right, but because Eskom hasn’t adequately explained (in non-industry jargon) to its customers what load shedding is and how it works, people don’t get it. They see it as arbitrary, unpredictable, and therefore not something they can plan for…which pisses them off. And because the phrase “load shedding” is an Eskom invention that originally had nothing to do with shutting down residential and other non-industrial customers, there’s nothing in the term that would allow someone to intuitively grasp its meaning, like the PG&E term “rolling blackout.” Yup…that’s what it means…”rolling blackout.”

The woman I spoke with appeared to be of at least normal intelligence, but not only did she not understand what “load shedding" meant, she had no idea why Eskom was doing it. When I explained to her that these were rolling blackouts…that the power in my suburb was cut for two hours so that other people could have the electricity, then their power would be cut so that I (and others) could have electricity, and then, after two hours, yet another suburb would lose power for two hours, she quickly grasped it. The blackout rolls from suburb to suburb…an easy mental picture for anyone to form. So why can’t Eskom explain this in simple, easy-to-understand language devoid of industry jargon?

Now I am sure Eskom is confident that their website has all the answers. In fact, they are so confident that when my power went down unexpectedly the other day (my husband works for Eskom so I can actually find out where we are on the scheduled outages), I called Eskom to see if this was a scheduled outage or if there was another reason…like a car rammed a power pole…for my electricity to be down and got a recorded message that stated that Eskom was load shedding due to shortages (duh!) and to find out when my area was scheduled for load shedding, I should check their website. Now this is monumentally stupid for at least two reasons: 1) the majority of South Africans do not have computers and/or internet access and 2) those of us who do have computers and internet access cannot get to Eskom’s website…or any other website, for that matter…during a power outage! But somehow these very simple bits of fundamental information have escaped Eskom’s notice, so customers who awaken to find their power out…with no clue why, since load shedding at 6 am doesn’t seem especially logical…have no way of knowing if theirs is a scheduled outage that will resolve with time or some fault in the system that needs to be reported.

Being married to an Eskom engineering type, I tried to do the conscientious thing yesterday morning and go to the website and download an outage schedule for my area. Unfortunately, despite my fairly decent native intelligence and high degree of literacy, I was unable to make heads or tails of the thing. My interpretation was that if I was lucky, my power would be down from noon to 2:30, if I was unlucky, it would also be down from 6am to 8:30am, and if I was in a serious state of karma-debt, it would also be down from 8pm to 10:30pm as well. What days? No clue. How do I know which of those times would see me without power? No clue either.

Eventually, Hubby deciphered the danged thing for me and it turns out that you practically have to have an engineering degree (not to mention internet access at any and all times of the day) in order to use the blasted thing. It involves three pages of hoop-jumping (most of it egregiously non-intuitive) in order to input your city, get the hokey-looking dial that points to the colour that applies to your area, and then get the interpretation of your colour status. Hint: brown is bad.

Now you have to go to yet another page to determine what that brown means, because there are three degrees of brown. Brown1 means you’ll be out once during the day, Brown2 means twice, and Brown3 means three times. (Since the outages are now 2.5 hours each, why bother turning it back on at all?). On that third page you are supposed to see a chart that tells you what days of the week and the times you will be affected by Browns 1, 2, and 3. Interestingly, Hubby’s chart showed the days (he was accessing the website from inside Eskom’s network) and mine did not (I was accessing from outside).

Now if I, a veteran of California’s Summer of Rolling Blackouts, could not decipher this load shedding schedule without help from an Eskom insider, I’m wondering just how useful it is to other people who don’t even understand the concept of a rolling blackout. What, after all, in the words “load shedding” gives any indication of what is actually going on?

Addressing Eskom’s means of communicating the schedule for the blackouts, they couldn’t be doing a worse job. Aside from the aforementioned lack of access to the website for most of South Africa’s millions of Eskom users, there is the matter of that complicated, obtuse method of access the information for the minority of us that can get on line. PG&E had a simple and brilliant solution: on your electric bill there was a code number. That code corresponded to blackout schedule that was printed on the back of the bill. Simple…read your code, compare it to the chart, know when your power was going down.

In South Africa some of us have “prepaid” electricity, meters in our houses that we charge with a card purchased at any one of thousands of gas stations, 7-11 stores, and grocery stores. These people don’t get a monthly electric bill, but they do have to physically go to a shop to charge their cards, so a brochure with a colour-coded map could be handed out with each electricity pre-payment.

I don’t really blame Eskom for the inadequacy of the supply. They started warning government more than ten years ago that new power plants were necessary…they even had the plans ready for many of them…but government didn’t listen. I think it is supremely ironic that government today is haranguing Eskom and calling them on the carpet to explain the meagre supply when, in fact, government’s foot-dragging is at the core of the problem. The President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, has recently admitted as much. Eskom knew they needed new power plants, but government would not loosen the purse strings and now we are in a deficit situation…and with 2010 (World Cup) just around the corner.

Let’s just hope our electrician is as good to us as he has been in the past…Hubby has him coming out to give us an estimate for installing a generator to power the house during shut downs. Considering who Hubby works for, that’s pretty ironic in itself!

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