Eskom holds thumbs Soweto will accept its new smart meters
In a bid to curb the culture of nonpayment that has bedevilled townships such as Soweto for decades, Eskom has launched yet another new smart meter that it hopes will be accepted by residents.
Prepaid meters have been met with great resistance from residents before, and Eskom’s decision to tackle the problem head-on in spite of local government elections in August is likely to turn electricity supply into a political football for parties.
The meters are geared for Gauteng municipalities. The power utility said it believed new and improved technology would help to curb illegal electricity connections, which are blamed for claiming the lives of many South Africans, particularly children, and causing power outages throughout the country.
Project manager Daphney Mokwena said the culture of nonpayment in Soweto had been a huge challenge for Eskom. She said 80% of residents did not even budget for electricity in their monthly budgets. This culture posed a challenge, along with illegal electricity connections and ghost vendors who allegedly sold electricity vouchers on behalf of either municipalities or the utility itself. “This leads to an unstable power connection,” she said.
The new prepaid smart meters are split in two – the customer-interface units are installed in the homes of residents and the other halves sit in boxes outside. This means they are less vulnerable to illegal connections, according to Mokwena.
She said at least 39% of Soweto had already installed the new smart meters and it was expected that, over the next three to five years, the whole of Soweto would be connected.
Eskom has been engaged in door-to-door campaigns and community meetings to inform residents about the benefits of the prepaid system. At least 400 members of communities were employed part time by Eskom over the past nine months to assist with customer education programmes, said the utility.
But with election season already under way, Eskom will contend with political forces that will look to leverage support off the promise of free electricity. But Mokwena said they had engaged with organisations about “unrealistic promises”.
While many residents have called for a flat rate, Solly Matebula of Eskom says the utility cannot do that because each household has different appliances that consume electricity in different ways. Each household can set aside a set amount of money at the beginning of the month and limit its electricity usage, he advises.
The power utility has in the past expressed concerns that illegal connections are dangerous and often result in serious injury or death. It causes overloading of the network, which results in unplanned outages. These often affect the smooth operation of the traffic lights, as well as lifesustaining equipment at hospitals.
Eskom has added that unplanned power outages affect the quality of electricity supply, which in turn affects investment and, ultimately, the country’s broader economy.