South Africa’s current power crunch, which has seen state-owned Eskom implement rotational blackouts to avoid a collapse of the national grid, is largely due to a lack of maintenance of the utility’s ageing infrastructure, officials said on Tuesday.
Eskom continued implementing rolling blackouts as its creaking plants – several of them over 35 years old – struggled to supply enough power in a crisis likely to hurt the ailing economy.
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan said it was going to be a huge struggle to overcome the crisis.
“We understand the frustration. We don’t have a magic formula,” he told a news conference, noting that while Eskom had 48,000 MW of installed capacity, only 28,000 MW were currently available.
Gordhan and Eskom chairperson Jabu Mabuza conceded that the state company had not spent enough on maintaining its equipment over the past five years, while new plants Medupi and Kusile had not come on stream.
“Money was not spent on maintenance, the question has to be what was that money spent on,” Mabuza said. “The reality is that we now have a plant that is falling off, owing to no maintenance.”
Both acknowledged that Eskom had not communicated its problems to the public openly enough, and Gordhan committed to providing another update in about 14 days on how the current challenges were being addressed.
In a statement earlier on Tuesday, Eskom said it was again implementing stage 4 load shedding, which effectively involves suppressing 4,000 MW of demand on a rotational basis to avoid collapsing the national grid.
“Eskom’s maintenance teams are working round the clock to return generation units to the electricity system,” it said.
Eskom supplies 95% of South Africa’s electricity needs but the cash-strapped utility has struggled to do this in recent years. Several former senior officials have also been forced out after being implicated in corruption.
“There’s still a lot of accountability that needs to take place,” Gordhan said on Tuesday. “The previous CEO and his colleagues at that time have a lot to explain to South Africa.”
He said the current crunch had been worsened by the lack of supply from neighbouring Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa due to damage caused by tropical cyclone Idai.
As South Africans grappled with the electricity shortages, the main opposition Democratic Alliance said it would engage with Johannesburg residents on issues they faced on a daily basis “especially load shedding, which then leads to jobs-shedding”.
“The collapse of Eskom and its effects on the economy can be laid squarely at the feet of Eskom,” it said in a statement.
Utility Johannesburg Water warned that the electricity woes would affect the water supply.
“In the event of load shedding for the duration of four hours and more, pockets of areas will have water shortages of even low pressure because Johannesburg Water uses electricity to pump water from the reservoir,” it said.
The Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the new round of “extreme load shedding” gave businesses and municipalities no option but to look for other suppliers of electricity.
“Business needs electricity to survive,” its president Geoff Jacobs said. “This has created a situation where roof-top solar looks more attractive every month and where municipalities like Cape Town want to make use of independent power producers. They have no choice.”
“The long-term effects will be bad for Eskom, the country and for the taxpayers, but what else can businesses do? They have to deal with the situation now and not wait for Eskom to finally get on top of its deep-seated problems and reverse its recent history of corruption and mismanagement.”
– African News Agency