Happy Alternative

There might be Stage 6 loadshedding tonight, and it might coincide with our dinner time, but on the plus side, it’s been a cracker of a day in Cape Town and we are lucky enough to have an alternative to the electric oven, and plenty of wood to power it with.

And so, making the best out of a frankly somewhat scary situation, we’re going to lob some steaks, some pork kebabs and some chicken (for the vegetarians) on the braai this evening. There will also be a salad and some garlic…? bread…?. It could actually be a very pleasant evening.

We’ve been promised “just” Stage 4 tomorrow (the Stockholm Syndrome is kicking in just as they had hoped), and so it does seem at the moment as if South Africa has survived another near miss.

But you never say never in this place.

Stage 4 and up in Cape Town – what does it look like?

Much alarm, but no real surprise, as the message came through that we can expect Stage 6 (six) loadshedding this evening.

Loadshedding – or rolling blackouts – is the process by which the country cuts off power to different areas at different times because there isn’t enough electricity to go around. The alternative would be not cutting areas off and literally overloading the grid, leading to uncontrolled blackouts and general Armageddon. You can’t just switch the grid back on after an uncontrolled blackout. We could be down for days or weeks.
Oh, and each stage represents 1000MW that we’re short of what we require. So to be missing 6000MW is quite something.

It’s not a good scenario.

In Cape Town’s 23 loadshedding areas, each loadshedding period lasts for 2 hours, plus an additional half hour during which the power is restored. You might get one loadshedding block per area in a Stage 1 or 2 day, and up to three blocks per area in a Stage 3 or 4 day. But once you get beyond that, it gets a bit different.

So what does life in Cape Town beyond Stage 4 look like?

Yes, it’s complicated, but there are plenty of timetables readily available. If you have electricity to be able to access them, of course. It pays to be prepared.

And it pays to cut your electricity usage when you have it. If we were all to do that, we might be able to reduce demand. But even then, it’s all very much out of our hands.

Fugly situation.

Difficult decisions made easier

The biggest ever petrol price increase in South African history kicks in tonight at midnight. At present, the (government-regulated) petrol price is estimated to go up by an additional R3.50 for a litre of the good stuff. And while that might be nought pounds noughty-nought to you, that’s a massive amount to all South Africans, representing an overnight increase of around 16.6%.

And of course, that increase will be felt by businesses as well, and they will pass on their higher costs onto their consumers and so your man on the street is going to get smacked with even more increased prices for… well… for everything.

And that means that even more individuals and families are going to have to make some difficult decisions as to what they can and can’t afford, and as to what has to be let go.

Fortunately, one company has just helpfully raised their head above the parapet for me.

Yesterday, we were informed that my daughter’s music lesson this evening at a local music school (let’s call it the College of Stone for the purposes of this blog post) was cancelled due to loadshedding this evening.

I was actually impressed with their organisation. Letting us know what was going on over 24 hours in advance. Nice work.

However, due to some magic deity smiling down upon us, there is no loadshedding this evening.

So I call the good College people this afternoon just to check that the lesson is now going ahead as usual and they say no, because they “can’t reinstate a lesson once it’s been cancelled”.

Thankfully (for them), they can still charge us for it though.

Now, I wasn’t happy at the lesson being cancelled, even more so at still having to pay for it, but it’s not the College of Stone’s fault that loadshedding happens, and while my daughter shouldn’t have to miss out on her lesson thanks to the crappy local electricity monopoly and years of horrific corruption therein, nor should the College of Stone have to lose out on their income. I do get that.

But now there is no loadshedding – it’s what passes for a “good electricity day” in South Africa – and they’re still not providing the service we’re paying them for, even though there’s now no reason for them not to… well, to paraphrase Radiohead:

When I am King making those difficult decisions, they will be first against the wall.

I’m well used to crappy service in South Africa, but this is a new low. The only positive is that it does make one of those upcoming unfortunate decisions a whole lot easier.

Being naughty with wood

We have a wood burning stove. I’m not afraid or ashamed to tell you that. I love our wood burning stove and sometimes even worship it on cold Cape Town evenings. So colour me both wholly unhorrified and completely unsurprised to learn that wood burning is – environmentally – a Bad Thing to do.

I think we all knew this already.

I am a little irritated with the way that I was told about this, though.
The Observer led with this headline:

Which might well be accurate, but when I read the article, the only bit in there that actually eluded to that being the case was this one:

Sensors were placed throughout Ashley ward, which encompasses deprived parts of St Pauls and better-off Bristol neighbourhoods such as Montpelier. Oluwatosin Shittu, 40, who lives in St Pauls, found his sensor picked up more pollution during the weekend when some residents were burning wood and during rush hours when cars queued on local roads.

“At the weekend [pollution] was high because obviously up the hill [in Montpelier] people were burning wood,” he said.

The word “obviously” is doing an awful lot of hard work there.
Does Bristol only get cold at the weekends, then? Citation required.

To be fair, I last went to Bristol in 2010, on a Saturday, and it was absolutely feckin’ freezing, so there is some evidence for that, but it’s still a bit of a stretch to a) claim that those are the only days when it’s cold, and b) assume that any air pollution on those days comes from affluent people burning wood in their wood burning stoves. However, one must remember that this is the lefty Observer, the spiritual Sunday read of the Champagne Socialists, so the posh people have to be blamed for everything, somehow.

But is it really an issue?

Steve Crawshaw, who manages the project for the council, said domestic wood burning was a serious and growing problem. He added that the number of days exceeding WHO pollution guidelines in the ward were broadly in line with the city average, but still a cause of concern.

So the alleged wood burning stove pollution on the weekends in Ashley Ward makes it very much the same as everywhere else in the city where more or less affluent people do or don’t have wood burning stoves some or all of the time, then?

Ok.

I’m not saying that any pollution is a good thing, of course, but when you read the stats in that very article, it does seem like a bit of a storm in a teacup. Because if you look at the bad bits about the PM 2.5 pollution that wood burners chuck out, they look quite bad:

The latest analysis from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reveals that wood burners and open fires are now responsible for 17% of the country’s total PM 2.5 pollution – more than the pollution caused by road traffic. Nationally, emissions from domestic wood burning increased by 35% between 2010 and 2020.

But if you manage to get to the next paragraph, it’s actually all ok:

A Defra spokesperson said PM 2.5 pollution had fallen by 18% since 2010.

So it really just seems like a cheap shot at some middle-class people to me.

Back to Cape Town. Which we can’t really compare with Bristol because they’re entirely different places (like Sweden and Bulgaria). No-one here has central heating. It’s just not a thing. So yes, while my family are relatively well off and burning wood, those living in shacks in the local townships are also burning wood. A Cape Town cold front (such as the one outside right now which has already dumped 32mm of rain on us in the last 24 hours) is no fun for anyone beneath it, and burning wood to keep warm turns out to actually be a great leveller in our society.

But how would we keep warm if we didn’t burn wood?

Paraffin and LPG prices are prohibitively expensive as a way to heat your home – whatever size or type it may be (and they’re about to get even more expensive):

Electricity – if you have it – is every bit as pricey, it’s generated by filthy coal…

…and it’s regularly unavailable anyway as loadshedding often kicks in.

There’s no piped gas. No double glazing. Very few carpets.
We don’t need them for 10 months of the year.

So where’s any alternative, let alone an eco-friendly one?

There are only so many jumper and blankets you can put on.

On our positive side, most of the wood that we burn comes from invasive trees, so we are doing our bit to preserve the local natural environment, even as we chuck out toxins and particulates into that same natural environment.

Look, despite the rumours, there’s little chance of any legislation around wood burning coming soon to South Africa. That would deny many millions of people any sort of warmth or comfort. And even if it did, there would be one very obvious issue why it just wouldn’t work. Because if you’re going to ban the burning of wood, you’re clearly going to also have to ban braai’ing. That would be the final final nail in the ANC’s coffin.

So that’s just not going to happen.

Thus, with many apologies to the local PM 2.5 count and to the cursed residents of St Pauls in Bristol, I’m about to go and chuck some more Bluegum on the fire: it’s chilly and needs must.

Your loadshedding questions answered

An occasional series in which I endeavour to provide answers to all your queries about the lack of electricity in South Africa at the moment.

Today’s question comes from Confused of Cape Town:

Do you get loadshedding on board ships?

No. You don’t.

Loadshedding is thankfully limited to things which are attached to Eskom’s national grid. Things like boats (and planes), which aren’t physically joined to the electricity system, are therefore not affected by loadshedding.

We’re still working on the technology which means that ships can be attached to land-based electricity. At the moment, all the wires keep getting tangled as soon as the vessels leave port.

This is why cruise liners and container ships rely on candies for light during their journeys.