Johannesburg punishing smart meter users

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Johannesburg electricity utility City Power has defended its plan to use load limiting to curb the energy demand of residents with smart meters outside of load-shedding hours.

When the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) first started promoting load limiting in 2015, it explained that the demand-side management mechanism was an alternative to implementing load-shedding.

Load limiting attempts to reduce a house’s electricity consumption by curtailing its maximum permitted current from 60 amps to 10 amps, or about 2.5kW.

This enables them to continue using lights, TVs, fridges, computers, routers, and even a microwave where they would previously have had no power during load-shedding.

The reduction itself is typically done at the customer’s end and requires a smart meter to monitor usage at the utility’s end.

Eskom’s implementation involves sending the customer a warning via SMS before their load-shedding slot begins.

If the smart meter shows they are using over 2.3kW, they are warned via SMS. If they fail to act after four warnings, their power is cut until the end of the load-shedding slot.

Despite many years of promises, the CoJ and City Power never implemented load limiting before revitalising the plan in 2023, when Eskom also began piloting the mechanism with its direct customers in parts of Johannesburg.

Then, in June 2024, City Power released a statement on several measures it was taking to curb demand to avoid its distribution network collapsing — including implementing load limiting from July 2024.

For the first time, at least on public record, the utility made no mention of the mechanism only being used during load-shedding.

City Power told MyBroadband it had 65,000 smart meters which are “ready” for load limiting.

The utility said that it would use load limiting to protect the integrity of its grid.

Aside from load-shedding, Eskom and municipalities use another mechanism to reduce strain on their networks  — load reduction.

Load reduction can be implemented during or outside of load-shedding hours and serves a different purpose than load-shedding.

It is aimed specifically at problematic areas where illegal connections are rife and cuts off entire neighbourhoods.

Many have argued that the mechanism is justified as communities are often complicit in the connections or don’t bother to report them.

Punishment without crime

With load limiting, City Power plans to reduce electricity supply in areas where there are no or few illegal connections.

The utility maintains these areas can also be overloaded because “electricity is in high demand and residents may not be using electricity sparingly”.

It then gave the peculiar example of a hypothetical household using four heaters to simultaneously warm up four different rooms as some sort of sin.

If a household did this and its power did not automatically trip, it would be because it was not pulling more than its 60A connection allows.

In effect, City Power is admitting its upstream distribution infrastructure — like transformers, substations, and cables — is sometimes insufficient to meet the demand of paying electricity users.

Instead of upgrading its equipment to keep pace with demand, it is blaming residents for using what it regards as too much electricity at certain times.

City Power also neglects to acknowledge that a connection’s capacity is often a factor in determining the fixed charge.

Therefore, if the utility is reducing capacity outside of load-shedding without committing a crime or violating the electricity supply agreement, some might argue it should also reduce fixed charges.

City Power has further justified load limiting by explaining that households which have bypassed meters and are not vending can strain its network, leading to overloading.

However, these are not the households that are paying customers with working smart meters, who will now be punished for the actions of malicious users.

Therefore, City Power is also shifting the consequences of its failure to act against illegal electricity users to law-abiding citizens.

The city’s own observations showed those who are illegally connected or tampered with meters were amongst the highest consumers of electricity.

“They do not experience the financial consequences of keeping high and irresponsible usage,” it said.

Smart meter users seem less likely to tamper with their infrastructure as the city can monitor their usage and anomalies remotely.

Scaring off smart meter adopters

Sceptical South Africans are hesitant to have utility-provided smart meters installed in their home because they fear local authorities would limit or cut their supply for reasons other than load-shedding.

The Free Market Foundation’s policy head Martin van Staden warned that load limiting was “tyranny disguised as convenience” and said it was easily conceivable that load limiting would be used to control general electricity demand in the future.

“It goes without saying that as South African politics gets increasingly heated, and government perhaps increasingly malicious, political victimisation of households or even businesses cannot be entirely ruled out,” he added.

Van Staden recommended that households resist the installation of smart meters for as long as possible and go as off-grid as far as they can afford to.

MyBroadband asked City Power whether implementing load limiting outside load-shedding hours would not discourage more households from adopting its smart meters.

It said customers should not be discouraged from installing smart meters out of fear of load limiting because it comes with “lots of benefits other than load limiting.”

“Smart meters provide accuracy of readings, which can reduce the number of estimated bills and disputes over charges also offering increased convenience.”

“Smart meters can also help consumers better understand their energy usage, change their habits to save money, and access better energy deals and experience advanced billing.

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