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Load shedding: Why your electricity bill doesn’t come down despite having no power

| Economic factors

If there was any good to take out of load shedding, it would be a belief that our electricity bills should be lower considering we don’t have power to use, let alone pay for, for hours a day.

But every month the bill arrives and there is no reprieve in the amount owed; in fact, the cost is actually higher.

If you don’t understand how this can be the case, you are not alone. After all, if you have no electricity for six hours a day – which equates to 180 hours a month, surely you have nothing to pay for?

For Lungile Mashele, an energy specialist for the Development Financial Institution of the Development Bank of South Africa, this issue is close to her heart.

Helping to unpack the complexities involved with electricity consumption, and explaining why the lack of electricity in our homes does not translate to lower electricity bills, she says there was an 18.65 percent increase for Eskom customers in April 2023 and 18.49 percent for most municipal customers in July 2023. This means that, in effect, you are paying almost 20 percent more for electricity than you were paying previously.

“So you will definitely see a huge jump, even with your best efforts to conserve energy.”

In addition, if you have a back-up power system, such as a UPS or battery, and you have load shedding in the evening, the system will automatically use grid-tied electricity to charge because there is no solar at night. This increases your consumption, she says, noting that Eskom estimates this charging to add about 1GW of demand to the evening peak.

Higher stages of load shedding – Stages 4 to 6, also impact your appliances in ways that will ultimately require extra energy use when load shedding finishes. The longer the load shedding, the longer appliances such as fridges and geysers stay off.

“By the time the electricity comes back, your appliances need to return to their optimal temperatures, and this increases consumption. At Stage 6 load shedding, it means your electric geyser has to restart at 4-hour intervals; this is important because your geyser can account for 40 percent of electricity consumption.”

Importantly, Mashele adds, most people think that, because there is load shedding, they are not using electricity or are using less electricity, but this is not true; most people defer their consumption to another part of their day.

“So yes, you don't run the dishwasher at 10am but you'll run it at 6pm, which also coincides with the evening peak and costs you more.”

In addition to the above explanations, the Saldanha Bay Municipality states that municipalities charge consumers for certain fixed electricity costs that remain the same every month. The fixed municipal costs consist of a service charge and a capacity charge. This is required to recover the fixed costs of the municipality to deliver the electricity service to the consumers.

“It is required that all property owners pay for this fixed cost, and not only those that consume kWh units of electricity. For example, a holiday owner that consumes electricity only during December must also contribute to the fixed costs on a monthly basis.”

The Municipality, like many others – if not all – in South Africa, has two inclining block tariffs. Energy consumption that falls below a certain threshold is a different price to that which falls above this threshold. This encourages consumers to use less electricity as the first block is cheaper than the second block.

Eskom’s bulk energy tariffs don’t decrease either

Not only do fixed tariffs remain the same each month but Eskom’s bulk electricity account to the municipality does not decrease despite load shedding.

“The Eskom bulk purchases account to the municipality has many tariff components. The total monthly bill of Eskom does not decrease during load shedding. Eskom has winter tariffs (June to August) that are higher than the summer tariffs. The Eskom bulk purchases account has various tariff categories and different actual tariffs for different metering points. For some of these metering points, there are time-of-use tariffs.

“There are fixed components, demand-related components, and energy-related components to the account.”

The total tariff payable, therefore, depends on the actual load pattern of energy usage. The load factor differs from month to month, based on the actual electricity usage.

“The load factor is the relationship between the peak demand of the month (kVA) and the energy usage for the month (kWh units).”

So while bulk Eskom energy unit purchases may come down as a result of load shedding, the increased peak after load shedding and the reduction of the load factor will mean that the total average cost per unit increases slightly.

“It is mostly only industries that use less units of energy, provided they are not in production during the load shedding period. Their peak demand does not change since they still register at the peak during other production cycles. This is the main factor causing the reduction in load factor.

“With residential customers there is almost no reduction of energy (kWh units) due to load shedding. The loss of production does not apply since the bulk of residential energy goes into the heating and cooling of warm water geysers, stoves for cooking, and refrigeration. These appliances consume the energy after load shedding.”

People also tend to charge their electronic equipment after load shedding has ended.

The energy that is not used due to load shedding is mostly lighting, the Municipality explains, adding that this is usually a small component because many households have energy-efficient lights.

While Mashele believes that most people are doing their best to conserve energy at home, she also offers these useful ways to save on your energy use.

1. Don't recharge your batteries at night, only use solar to charge your batteries

2. Don't open your fridge constantly during load shedding as this stops it from maintaining its cool and will require more electricity to bring it up to its optimal temperature once load shedding ends.

3. Buy a gas stove and use gas for cooking. It is cheaper than electricity and also allows you to cook during load shedding

4. Use solar geysers instead of electric geysers as you save up to 40 percent of your electricity bill

5. Don't use electricity to run heavy appliances during peak times. With a time-of-use tariff, you pay more during peak hours

6. Understand your inclining block tariff structure. You pay more for electricity depending on your monthly consumption, so for the first 100kWh you pay a certain amount and for the next 300kWh you pay a different amount.

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