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How Electricity Is Distributed

The electricity distribution industry (EDI) is a vital link between the supplier  usually Eskom  and customers that buy and use electricity.

A distribution operation constructs and maintains equipment that transforms the power supply to the type that meets the customer's needs, meters the amount the customer uses, provides the appropriate billing and collects the payments.

Traditionally, distribution has been managed by Eskom and some local governments. At one time, there were nearly 500 distributors of electricity in South Africa, but this number has been reduced through consolidation to less than 300.

For nearly 20 years, Eskom has been talking to central government and the other stakeholders  mainly the National Energy Regulator (NERSA) and the local government sector - about further rationalising the EDI. The proposal is to form six regional electricity distributors (REDs) whose sole responsibility would be to manage and drive all electricity distribution throughout the country. This would allow tariffs to be aligned, service to be improved and the equipment to be better maintained and updated. Interruptions of service (blackouts) because of old equipment would be much reduced.

Unfortunately, there are challenges that must be overcome before progress can be made. Before they will agree to support this initiative, all stakeholders need reassurance that their assets and investments will be protected, and that the new structures will provide a clear benefit to all involved.

Because of the uncertainty hanging over the sector, many players have been reluctant to allocate resources to it, and some equipment and levels of service have been allowed to deteriorate. Coupled with a reduced amount of spare generation capacity in the country, which has affected many construction projects, electricity supply has been added to developers lists of issues that could be problematic.

Unreliable power supplies have caused many organisations to invest in their own backup supply equipment at considerable cost.

The South African electricity supply industry, long the envy of the developing world, must be allowed to restore its reputation and resume giving its customers excellent service.

To achieve this, there must be co-operation and support (Thekga) from everyone. The rebuilding of a world-class electricity supply must become a national issue  a social rallying call.

Until that happens, domestic customers would do well to have gas bottles and other emergency equipment prepared for use, in case of unexpected interruptions.