Why is South Africa in the dark?

Not enough to satisfy demand.
Not enough to satisfy demand.
Image: AP Photo/Denis Farrell
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The lights are flickering on and off at South Africa’s biggest utility.

The republic has had its power switched off repeatedly since November in the latest round of load-shedding by Eskom, the state-owned enterprise that generates 95% of the country’s electricity. Eskom triggers the power outages when it anticipates being unable to satisfy demand.

The interruptions occur according to a schedule that Eskom publishes in advance. That cues customers to ready their diesel generators, flashlights or other backups, as well as to prepare meals in advance. It’s also a good idea to gas up the car, since most petrol stations cannot pump without power.

“It really pains us to have to load-shed,” Tshediso Matona, Eskom’s CEO, told reporters recently. “We know the public is not pleased.”

A drag on South Africa’s economy

Inconvenience aside, the outages are weighing down Africa’s second-largest economy. The shortage of electricity has factored into decisions by ratings agencies to downgrade South Africa’s debt, which teeters close to junk status.

Though Eskom proposed more power plants a decade ago, the government of then-President Thabo Mbeki ordered the utility to hold off amid debate over whether to privatize the industry.

Since then, demand for electricity has swallowed whatever excess Eskom can generate. The outages have slowed mining—an engine of South Africa’s economy—and shaved the country’s gross domestic product.

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It doesn’t help that Eskom has had to operate plants continuously and delay maintenance. Because of breakdowns, the power available has fallen to 75%, from 85%, over the past five years, the utility says.

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The latest problems began in March, when stores of coal that Eskom uses to fuel power plants became waterlogged after a week of rain. Production receded again in November after the collapse of a silo that stores coal at a power station about 153 miles southeast of Johannesburg.

Outages likely to continue

Though Eskom has embarked on a building spree, the first of the new facilities won’t produce power until next year. One is slated to come online in July. A second won’t be finished until 2018. In October, Eskom powered up a wind farm as part of an effort to lessen the country’s dependence on coal.

The government said recently that it will solicit bids to build nuclear plants that could add as much as 9,600 megawatts to the grid, which must shoulder a load of about 38,000 megawatts on a winter’s day, when demand tends to be highest.

Load-shedding will continue for at least the next several months, according to Matona. Others are even more pessimistic. “We will have load-shedding for another two years,” predicts Lynne Brown, the country’s minister of public enterprises.