• Eskom power strikes lead to arson and public violence.
  • Vodacom networks suffer as chaos reigns.
  • Backup batteries unable to fully recharge in between outages.

Vodacom hit by record blackouts in South Africa

Vodacom hit by record blackouts in South Africa

Source: Unsplash / Ricardo IV Tamayo

Vodacom said it is doing everything possible to alleviate network issues in South Africa as record power blackouts wreak national havoc.

Labour union strikes at national power provider Eskom have led to a civil unrest in the country, with employee homes petrol‑bombed and tyres slashed.

To cope with the strikes, Eskom implemented Stage 6 load shedding, leaving Vodacom unable to fully recharge its backup batteries in between outages. Once the backups are depleted, connectivity in the relevant area can be lost entirely.

Chain reaction

Eskom and its unions found themselves at a stalemate on 22 June 2022, with the latter demanding a 12% pay rise for all employees. It baulked at the power provider’s 5.3% offer, citing South African inflation of 6.5%.

Chaos broke out the following day as approximately 90% of Eskom staff went on strike.

On 28 June, Eskom initiated Stage 6 power cuts, leaving most residents without power for two hours per day. Some South Africans, however, faced four‑hour blackouts. Unsurprisingly, this led to further uproar throughout the country.

Eskom then increased its pay offer to 7%. Though that offer has not yet been accepted, labour unions agreed to call workers back from strike action to resume negotiations. It was too late, however, to prevent the petrol‑bombing of homes and vehicles.

What is Stage 6?

Stage 6 refers to the cutting of 6,000 megawatts from the national grid — enough to supply almost four million homes.

Speaking at a media briefing in late‑June 2022, Eskom Chief Executive André de Ruyter forewarned of a potential Stage 6 scenario because of unlawful and unprotected strikes at major power stations.

Eskom implemented Stage 6 between 2pm and midnight on 30 June, and will do so from 5am to midnight on 1 July. It has cut 36,000 gigawatt-hours of power from the grid. The previous record was 30,000.

Load shedding by Eskom has long been flagged as exacerbating Vodacom’s issues by necessitating greater reliance on diesel generators (Vodafonewatch, #186 and passim). It has been initiating blackouts for more than a decade.

Backup batteries impact Vodacom funds and ESG targets

Theft, vandalism, and power outages at Vodacom’s mobile base stations continue to present a challenge to network resilience and green energy targets, despite a further ZAR 683m (£35m/€41m) investment in backup batteries in the year to 31 March 2022 (FY21–22).

Under the Energiser project, Vodacom has installed backup battery vaults at network sites to provide power for between four and eight hours when the grid fails. Group Chief Executive Shameel Joosub said batteries have cost the operator ZAR 1.7bn in the past two years.

In the Group’s latest Annual Report, “sporadic vandalism” and battery theft were again said to be impeding business continuity, “further exacerbated” by load shedding by South Africa’s national energy provider Eskom.

Load shedding was blamed for a 4.5% increase in the Group’s Scope 1 (direct) and Scope 2 (indirect) emissions in the FY. Mirroring Vodafone, Vodacom seeks to halve its Scope 1 and Scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2025, against a 2017 baseline.

Securing alternative energy

In FY21–22, Vodacom reported a 2.7% drop in energy consumption (excluding transport), with efficiency programmes and energy management among the drivers. These projects, it said, are dependent on enhanced security measures at network sites. Key programmes include:

  • Deployment of Raptor technology from Vodacom’s in‑house Internet of Things specialist IoT.nxt, which is said to slow emissions and support the operator’s security protocols (Vodafonewatch, #198). The Raptor energy management rollout continued in FY21–22, driving an energy saving of 25% per mobile network site or office building by optimising air conditioning runtime and enabling remote management of energy consumption. Raptor technology has been implemented at 7,313 base stations in South Africa, with 82 of those added in FY21–22.
  • Introduction of time‑of‑use tariffs to 1,072 rural base stations, which have had Eskom’s Ruraflex meters installed. The operator reported a 20% reduction in energy costs at these sites, with plans to install a further 140 Ruraflex meters and 750 Miniflex conversions in FY22–23.
  • A renewable energy agreement to power the Midrand head office in South Africa. Beyond the HQ, Vodacom flagged it was “exploring energy wheeling opportunities” from renewable providers, but no plans have been made beyond an intention to “partner with our suppliers, business partners, and energy experts” on ways to improve the resilience and sustainability of Vodacom networks.
  • Installation of 1,088 solar‑powered sites across the Vodacom footprint. No additional sites were added to this network in FY21–22.
  • Earlier in 2022, Vodacom flagged upgrades to 240 sites to include anti‑theft infrastructure and backup batteries (Vodafonewatch, #205).

Mixed results

Managing energy requirements is one of Vodacom’s Social and Ethics Committee’s FY22–23 “focus areas”. Khumo Shuenyane, Chairman of the Committee, noted that the Group’s energy strategy “relies significantly on power purchase agreements and wheeling to power our entire operations in South Africa”. Across Vodacom’s International Markets, the plan is to reduce reliance on diesel generators, with a focus on South Africa “as the most material contributor to the Group” — contributing 82% of Group GHG in the last FY.

Vodacom Group power consumption and emissions profile, FY20–22
 FY20–21FY21–22Change
 Source: Vodacom.

Scope 1 and Scope 2 GHG emissions

682,809 mtCO

713,542 mtCO

+4.5%

                Scope 1 (direct GHG)

113,993 mtCO

118,708 mtCO

+4.1%

                Scope 2 (indirect GHG)

568,816 mtCO

594,834 mtCO

+4.6%

GHG emissions per terabyte of data

0.75 mtCO

0.64 mtCO

-14.7%

Energy use

849.79 GWh

826.83 GWh

-2.7%

                Access network

615.10 GWh

608.58 GWh

-1.1%

                Core network

145.16 GWh

130.34 GWh

-10.2%

                Technology and data centres

52.87 GWh

55.68 GWh

+5.3%

                Offices

35.80 GWh

31.02 GWh

-13.4%

                Retail

0.86 GWh

1.21 GWh

+20.7%