South Africa’s energy crisis has never gone away

South Africa’s national energy company, Eskom, announced last week that it would extend its blackouts, plunging most South Africans into darkness for more than six or even nine hours a day and leaving the economy, already in the grip of a wider crisis unemployment and inflation crisisunder respiratory assistance.

Eskom, the state monopoly responsible for overseeing all stages of electricity supply in the country, from generation to distribution, was established in 1923 during the apartheid era and followed a grid system designed to serve the country. white minority. The grid has largely bypassed black areas and as a result has struggled to meet the country’s growing energy demands over time.

But that’s not the biggest problem. There just isn’t enough juice. A 1998 government white paper warned of the country’s poor energy planning and predicted that if South Africa did not start building new power stations, it would experience drastic shortages by 2007. The report could not have been more accurate. Often, when demand for electricity exceeds supply, energy providers use load shedding (turning off lights) to ease the strain and prevent the entire power grid from collapsing. Eskom started implementing load shedding at the end of 2007.

South Africa’s national energy company, Eskom, announced last week that it would extend its blackouts, plunging most South Africans into darkness for more than six or even nine hours a day and leaving the economy, already in the grip of a wider crisis unemployment and inflation crisisunder respiratory assistance.

Eskom, the state monopoly responsible for overseeing all stages of electricity supply in the country, from generation to distribution, was established in 1923 during the apartheid era and followed a grid system designed to serve the country. white minority. The grid has largely bypassed black areas and as a result has struggled to meet the country’s growing energy demands over time.

But that’s not the biggest problem. There just isn’t enough juice. A 1998 government white paper warned of the country’s poor energy planning and predicted that if South Africa did not start building new power stations, it would experience drastic shortages by 2007. The report could not have been more accurate. Often, when demand for electricity exceeds supply, energy providers use load shedding (turning off lights) to ease the strain and prevent the entire power grid from collapsing. Eskom started implementing load shedding at the end of 2007.

“I think it’s been a part of our lives for as long as I can remember,” said Lauren Urmson, an AFDA student who was born and raised in Johannesburg. “But I would say it’s definitely the worst of this year.”

Urmson, who also runs a small online jewelry business, expressed frustration over financial losses due to unreliable internet connections and expensive data plans. Recently, she was also scheduled to perform in a play at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa. But here again, 2 out of 4 shows were canceled due to a change in load shedding schedules. Netflix and chill aren’t an option either – you can’t watch TV or surf online.

“It’s just that your whole life is put on hold,” Urmson said. “And thatit’s really frustrating for a lot of people too because it feels like nobodydo something about it.

Reforming Eskom and solving the country’s serious energy crisis has been a priority for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. But it is now part of a growing list of promises the African National Congress party has failed to keep.

“Twenty-eight years after the rise of the ‘rainbow nation’, many people living in shacks are still waiting for the housing promised by the government; the electricity utility, Eskom, has collapsed to the point that there are frequent power cuts; and even millions of dollars meant to help fight COVID-19 have been misappropriated,” Kate Bartlett wrote in a recent FP profile of Nhlanhla “Lux” Mohlauli, a South African politician.

Instead of building a new generation of power plants when it should have, in 2007 and 2008 Eskom placed orders for two large-scale coal-fired power plants at Medupi and Kusile, respectively. They would have increased the generation capacity of the power grid by about 25%, said Chris Yelland, a Johannesburg-based energy analyst. But it was too little too late. The Medupi and Kusile power plants, affected by design flaws and delayed construction, got entangled in time and cost overruns. At that time, old power plants were beginning to reach the end of their lifespan and were decommissioned.

“Old factories were getting old and new factories were working like the old ones,” he said.

Apart from operational and structural problems, Eskom’s financial health also remains poor. The company currently holds $25.2 billion in debt and trying to contain costs to stay afloat.

According to economists, power cuts are costing South Africa more than $40 million per day and negatively affecting investor confidence. Recently unions, including the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, went on strike to protest against Eskom and demand higher wages. The company, in turn, called the strikes illegal and blamed workers for the extension of extreme power cuts.

“People don’tThey don’t necessarily require cheap electricity, but they do require predictable future electricity cost,” Yelland said.

The irony is that as South Africa’s fully state-owned utility struggles to even keep the boilers on, European governments are turning to nationalization as an answer to their own energy crises. On Thursday, the French government announced that it would acquire the remaining floating stake in EDF, the country’s main power producer. Analysts expect Germany to follow a similar path with Uniper, the new incarnation of what was once a major European utility.

South Africa’s electricity problems, serious as they are, are not purely national. Some 86 percent of the entire continent’s coal-fired generating capacity is in South Africa. It exports electricity to Botswana and Namibia and is part of the Southern African Power Pool, which supplies electricity to southern African countries.

South Africa, the region’s largest economy, may no longer be the supplier of last resort.

“Some of our regional neighbors have started to realize their vulnerability,” Yelland added. “They need to make sure they have a certain amount of their own production capacity and not be too dependent on South Africa.”

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