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Gloomy outlook after four days of blackouts

Gloomy outlook after four days of blackouts

The Times reports that the current power crisis will plunge some suburbs into darkness for an excess of 50 hours this week and the prognosis is bleak well into the new year. This comes on the back of a string of problems that have rocked Eskom over the past nine months, including the silo that collapsed at Majuba, a diesel shortage two weeks ago and wet coal in March.

Eskom’s CEO Tshediso Matona will provide an update on the utility’s action plan and release its holiday forecast. He will be anticipating that the end of year industrial shutdowns will bring some relief to the stretched grid. 

Spokesman Andrew Etzinger said the situation was expected to improve towards Christmas, but warned that January would be "tight again" as respite was only anticipated in two to three years, when multibillion rand power stations Medupi and Kusile are expected to start contributing to the grid.

Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown announced in July that the first of Medupi’s six new units would be “ready by December.” This date has once again been pushed back six months with the new date now sitting in June 2015.

Eskom is planning to take some units offline for “planned maintenance” after industry shuts down for the year. This follows the parastatal’s trend of initiating power cuts over weekends to minimise impact on industry, although the National Clothing Retail Federation of South Africa has asked Eskom to review this policy as it feels the crunch during peak season.

Eskom announced on Friday that it needed to free up 4,000MW over the weekend after it ran short of diesel and water at some units. It told consumers that it would implement Phase 2 loadshedding on Saturday and Sunday, but by Saturday morning it had upgraded this to Phase 3.

“We hope not to go to stage 4 as we did in 2008,” Ertzinger told SABC news. However, he said that stage 4 load shedding will be implemented if it is necessary to protect the grid.

“This is a controlled process by Eskom to make sure we do not risk a national blackout,” he continued. A national blackout would not be good news, as he explained that in South Africa it will possibly take weeks to re-start the grid after a complete blackout.

Businesses are concerned that this latest power crisis will affect the economy in the same way as the 2008 power crunch did, when the power interruptions cost the country a cool R50bn. 

Neren Rau, the CEO of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the unstable electricity supply was the single biggest risk to the country's economy.

"It definitely stands head and shoulders above any risk that business face right now," he said.

The damage to the country’s reputation as a reliable investment destination is beginning to become a worry, according to analysts. Johan Muller, a programme manager for energy and the environment at Africa Frost & Sullivan, said earlier this week that investors could increasingly start to look at investing elsewhere if the country’s energy supply woes were not decisively addressed.

Brown's office said she was working with Eskom to ensure urgent action to "get us out of this crisis." Eskom said that it was in talks with the Department of Public Enterprises and the Treasury to secure funding to keep its gas turbines running. This method of generation is extremely costly, according to Ertzinger, and Eskom now needs the funds to build up the diesel it needs to run these turbines in excess of 14 hours a day, even though the system was supposed to run three to four hours a day to plug gaps in the system.

The Sunday Times reported that the cabinet will meet on Wednesday, when the actions of Eskom's leadership, including its board, are likely to come under the spotlight. This as municipalities are being slapped with damages claims that add up to millions of rands from consumers frustrated by power surges brought on by faulty equipment and outages.  

The City of Cape Town confirmed receiving consumer claims for damaged washing machines, dishwashers, electronic gate motors, electric fences, TVs and other household appliances.

Businesses at Cape Town's V&A Waterfront are also feeling the pinch.

"It is particularly tricky when it happens in the middle of the peak shopping and tourism season leading up to Christmas," said V&A Waterfront spokesman Emma King.

"During power outages we see many of our shops having to close their doors early, and our restaurants having to turn away customers," she said.


 By Jenni McCann

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