South Africans looking for signs of an end to the latest round of power cuts were left disappointed after the minister responsible for power utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. said he doesn’t have answers yet.
The country is in its sixth day of rotating blackouts — needed to avoid a total grid collapse — as the state-owned utility struggles to bring faulty generating units back online. The staggered cuts known locally as load-shedding leave roads gridlocked across Africa’s most-industrialized economy and stunt business productivity, hitting small companies especially hard.
Eskom staff are working to assess the breakdowns, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan said Tuesday. The operational issues at Eskom’s plants were compounded over the weekend by a loss of power imports from neighboring Mozambique, which was hit by a devastating cyclone.
“I know the most important issue for South Africans is how long will this last and when will you be able to give us certainty that load shedding will end?” Gordhan told reporters. “At this point in time we are still getting a better grasp of the technical problems and other problems that Eskom power stations are confronting.”
Eskom is seen as a key risk to South Africa’s economy. The government last month approved a 69 billion-rand ($4.8 billion) bailout over three years to help rescue the utility, which is struggling to emerge from years of mismanagement, allegations of corruption and ballooning debt caused by cost overruns at two large new plants. The new facilities — Medupi and Kusile — are not only massively over-budget and behind schedule but also defective and have contributed to the latest outages.
Many of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants are old and unplanned breakdowns have increased after the company fell behind on maintenance as its financial situation worsened.
The company is also spending large amounts of money on diesel to run turbines designed for peak use. It’s used 4.6 billion rand to buy diesel this financial year, well above the allocated 670 million rand, spokesman Khulu Phasiwe said.
Eskom’s operations have reached “crisis level,” Chairman Jabu Mabuza said. It’s also investigating whether to finish the Kusile plant.