Prepare for a month of load-shedding

South Africans can expect current load-shedding by Eskom to continue, if not worsen, for at least the next four weeks. The state-owned electricity utility, however, cautioned that this might be extended due to excessive rain.

Eskom, which met major industrial customers and the six metro mayors on Tuesday, proposed a three-phase recovery period that would include load-shedding, at least in the initial phase.

“We do foresee load-shedding,” said Minister of Public Enterprises Alec Erwin, adding that Eskom and the government aim to move towards a more predictable system, but in the interim there will be load-shedding and later power rationing.

Boost to mines

Eskom promised on Tuesday to boost supplies this week to mines crippled by power failures, but warned it will soon have to start rationing electricity.

Power cuts have halted most mining in the country, a major producer of gold and the world’s top platinum miner, driving prices for precious metals to historic highs and badly shaking confidence in prospects for the continent’s biggest economy.

Eskom will increase electricity to mines by up to 90% by the end of the week, Erwin said on Tuesday. Mines, forced to shut last week, currently have only 75% of their energy needs. “During the course of Thursday we will revamp up to 90%,” Erwin told a press conference.

He said Eskom will also start to ration supplies for customers from March.

AngloGold Ashanti, the world’s third-biggest gold producer, said it had restarted production at one of seven mines by diverting power from elsewhere. Its main rivals in South Africa were unable to restart their mines.

“We expect to have 60% of our normal production back by Thursday,” said AngloGold’s spokesperson, Steve Lenahan. But he added: “If we don’t restart all our mines soon, employees are in danger of being sent on unpaid leave.”

Economy fears

Unions fear job losses if the crisis persists. The Independent Democrats has said it will bring a motion of no confidence in President Thabo Mbeki for failing to avert the power cuts that have shut down industries.

Some critics say Mbeki’s government is distracted by a leadership tussle in the African National Congress after he lost the post of party president last month to Jacob Zuma.

Even if Eskom restores power to the mines, South Africans can expect a bumpy ride over the next five years, when similar hitches could occur because its power generation capacity is still lagging behind demand.

The government insists the crisis does not threaten South Africa’s plans to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Analysts fear the booming economy, whose growth the government has targeted at 6%, could slow down and blame the government ignoring warnings as far back as 10 years ago from experts to build new power plants.

“It will be impossible for the economy to grow above 4,5%,” Jac Laubscher, Sanlam group economist, said.

After heavy losses on Monday, the rand strengthened by more than 1% against the dollar on Tuesday. The top 40 share index was up more than 3% at 12.30pm GMT.

Gold producers Gold Fields and Harmony, and Anglo Platinum, the world’s top producer of the metal, said they were using their electricity for essential maintenance, pumping out water, ventilation and refrigeration.

Eskom was unable to supply the mines last week when it lost about 4 000 megawatts, about one-10th of its generation capacity.

Eskom has asked that South Africa not be promoted as a major investment destination for now, but says it plans to spend R300-billion to boost power generation over the next five years.

Prayers and protests

Prayer, protest and turning to greener forms of energy—this is how religious leaders, a trade union and environmental activists, in the meanwhile, propose dealing with the country’s power crisis.

The National Religious Leaders’ Forum said on Tuesday the constant power cuts have dealt the country’s morale a “serious blow”. This, coupled with the crime rate and allegations swirling around police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi, should lead “people of faith” to pray.

“The forum stressed the need to boost the moral climate of the nation and for people of faith to pray daily for leaders in authority in the nation,” said the forum’s co-chairpersons, Bishop Ivan Abrahams and Ashwin Trikamjee, in a statement.

The United Association of South Africa (Uasa) trade union took a more militant line, saying it will not tolerate Eskom’s “incompetence”.

On Tuesday, it gave the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) notice of its intention to protest publicly. This will, however, only happen if a meeting that it demanded Nedlac convene to resolve the power cuts and their effect on mines fails to produce results.

Uasa CEO Leon Grobler said: “Unexpected power cuts to the mining electricity supplies could be life-threatening to the workers. Most mines conduct a continuous operation and the ventilation and cooling systems have to be kept operational at all times.

“When the power is disrupted, the mine’s main priority is to get the workers out of the unsafe and hazardous areas.”

Grobler said the power crisis is a national emergency for the mining industry, which consumes approximately 17,25% of Eskom’s electricity output.

Earthlife Africa, however, has started a campaign to turn the current electricity crisis into an “energy opportunity”.

“Although the deficit of generation capacity has been billed as a crisis, it can also be seen as an opportunity to shift to a more long-term sustainable approach,” said the organisation in a statement.

A focus on energy efficiency in the short term, with a longer-term emphasis on renewable energy, would meet sustainable-development aims and address climate change as well.

Earthlife Africa outlined a 10-point plan to do this. It includes rolling out solar water heaters and tax-deductible energy-efficiency measures, and establishing solar-, wind- and wave-powered electricity-generating plants.

It also called on the government to use investment incentives to attract national and international experts to build renewable energy plants, as well as other international financiers for investment in renewable energy.

“Eskom’s new power plants must prioritise renewable energy with commitment to binding and significant renewable energy targets,” Earthlife Africa said.—Reuters, I-Net Bridge, Sapa

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