Eskom holds thumbs Soweto will ac­cept its new smart me­ters

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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.

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