Gauteng / 3 January 2015, 10:56am / Thabiso Thakali
Johannesburg - There is just about enough electricity to survive the heat next week as Joburg revs up again with the business start to the new year – but the lights may still go out anyway.
This was the message from Eskom on Friday as holiday-makers prepared to return and big industries to reopen.
This message arrived as the country marks the seventh anniversary of the first blackouts in 2008 that laid bare the vulnerabilities of an ageing electricity grid.
Seven years ago this month more than 4 million electricity users were left in the dark when the unthinkable happened – powerlines went dead across the country.
And one economist has warned that last month’s power blackouts, which hit many businesses at peak boom time, will certainly have affected the retail sales numbers, to be released later this month.
Those businesses will count their losses include retailers, small and medium enterprises, big industrial players, banks, shopping malls and food outlets.
“We can expect very weak economic growth in 2015, but Eskom power problem won’t be the only variable contributing to this,” said economist Dawie Roodt.
“We have a problem of debt level exacerbated by lack of electricity. I have calculated, however, that today our production uses 20 percent less electricity than it did before 2008.”
Roodt said the industries most likely to be affected significantly by the power crisis were mining, construction and manufacturing, but retail sales would not be affected so significantly.
Eskom spokesman Andrew Etzinger warned on Friday that in the next few weeks the reserve margin would be lower and the grid would be vulnerable to load shedding.
“Next week things return to normal and there will be vulnerability,” he said.
“We have secured funding for our gas turbines to run for January, but there will certainly be pressure on the grid.”
What has changed since 2008 when Eskom first implemented the first and the worst wave of rolling blackouts?
“Similarities between now and 2008 is that our reserve margin is low and there remains a risk of load shedding,” said Etzinger.
“But the issues underlying the power problems are different now.
“In 2008, load shedding related to power availability at power stations. This time it’s about high amount of generation plants that are out for technical problems.”
Etzinger said the big difference between now and 2008 was Eskom’s ability to respond to the crisis.
In addition, he said, the first unit of Medupi was close to synchronisation. There was also the prospect of the wind farm project being opened in March.
Etzinger said the past two weeks of holidays had allowed the power utility to undertake some necessary short-term maintenance. If it had not been done, it would have led to a far worse situation.
“The fact that we can only undertake short-term maintenance does underline the dilemma we have at the moment,” he added.
Eskom board chairman Zola Tsotsi admitted on Friday that the utility was starting a new calendar year with pressing problems of ageing infrastructure with high maintenance requirements, growing electricity demand and financial problems.
“Significant progress is being made at Eskom’s new build programmes – Medupi, Kusile, Ingula and Sere,” he said.
“These projects are pivotal to continuity of supply of electricity and enabling access to electricity to those who currently do not have such access.
“Some significant steps were taken during 2014 to make sure that although Eskom starts the year with pressing challenges, these challenges will be met with robust, multipronged strategies to ensure a service that is operationally and financially sustainable.”