Record outages leave SA struggling for energy fix

The most severe blackouts in South Africa’s history have left the government struggling for ways to mitigate their impact on businesses and livelihoods, with efforts to buy more power from private producers and neighboring countries.

Africa’s most industrialised nation is facing more than four hours of electricity cuts at a stretch because state-owned utility Eskom can’t produce enough power from its old and poorly maintained plants to meet demand.

Although the country has faced rolling blackouts since 2008, a succession of action plans have failed to provide lasting solutions. The government’s latest pledge to intervene comes after 6 000 megawatts of capacity was cut from the national grid over the weekend as power stations malfunctioned.

The crisis is hammering an economy that’s been struggling to rebound from the pandemic and rebuild battered business confidence. The duration and frequency of the outages don’t allow for batteries used as backups to be recharged and some firms are running up huge bills buying diesel for their generators. Small businesses have been hit particularly hard.

“We have a backlog and I had to cancel some orders because we couldn’t accept them due to the prolonged power cuts,” said Sibongile Mufamade, a laundromat worker in Radiokop, west of Johannesburg, who fears losing her job. “This is the worst we’ve experienced and it’s hurting small businesses.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa cut short an overseas trip to oversee the government’s response to the crisis and is due back in the country later on Tuesday. He said he’d held an emergency virtual meeting with his ministers and officials, and solutions were being formulated and implemented.

“We will remain seized with this issue until the situation is resolved,” he said in his weekly newsletter to the nation. The recent power cuts have “reminded us how unstable our aging power stations are. It has given greater urgency to the measures we announced two months ago to stabilise our electricity supply,” he said.

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Eskom, which supplies more than 90% of South Africa’s electricity, on Monday said it intended to begin signing deals this week to buy 1 000 megawatts of additional power.

The utility has a nominal generation capacity of about 45 000 megawatts, but more than half of that has been offline due to breakdowns or scheduled repairs, and it has previously warned that as much as 6 000 additional megawatts is needed to stabilize the system.

The Department of Public Enterprises, which oversees Eskom, has meanwhile announced plans to buy 200 megawatts of power from other countries through the regional Southern African Power Pool.

The rand hit 17.7975 per dollar on Monday, its weakest weakest level since May 2020, and was at 17.7227 by 17:37 in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

The FTSE/JSE Africa All Share Index rose as much as 1.5%, after declining for five straight days and closed 0.19% in the green. Mining and manufacturing companies have been the hardest hit.

A number of mining companies have announced plans to build their own power plants, but it will be some time before those are operational.

“It’s hard to say what the impact on production will be. For now smelting” has been significantly impacted but the impact on mining has been limited, Johan Theron, a spokesman for Impala Platinum said via text message: “We are minimising use of our furnaces and other auxiliary equipment to prioritize available power for mining activity.”

Battery backup
Vodacom Group, South Africa’s market-leading wireless carrier, said it has spent about R2 billion on batteries over the past two years to help keep base stations running during outages, but longer and more frequent interruptions may only allow intermittent service.

Rival MTN Group has deployed more than 2 000 generators and thousands of batteries to keep its customers connected, but the current severity of the power cuts made charging them a challenge, according to Michele Gamberini, its chief technology and information officer.

There have been a total of 106 days of outages in 2022, Bloomberg calculations show. On Tuesday, Eskom removed 5 000 megawatts of capacity from the grid, after bringing some tripped units back on line, but its executives have warned that there’s a risk the situation could deteriorate again.

“South Africa’s growth potential continues to diminish” every day that the power cuts continue, economists at Rand Merchant Bank said in emailed comments. “The outlook remains one of more pain to come as South Africa assets are fragile and prone to weakness in an environment of deteriorating fundamentals.”

Ramaphosa last announced emergency measures to curtail the outages on July 25, including increasing Eskom’s maintenance budget and ramping up power purchases.

Radiokop resident Tapiwa Chasakara said he’s grown increasingly frustrated at the government’s and Eskom’s inaction.

“These power cuts are the worst we’ve seen because they happened so quickly and without warning,” he said. “The longer hours without power are impacting our quality of life and even our finances because you find yourself having to buy takeaways when you could have just cooked at home. I don’t have backup power.”

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.