No end in sight for South African power cuts

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan could not say on Tuesday when severe electricity cuts would end, as state utility Eskom suffered a sixth day of capacity constraints which could thwart efforts to boost economic growth.

Neither could Eskom officials say how much it would cost to fix faults such as boiler leaks at its ageing coal-fired power plants, as new breakdowns continued to take management by surprise.

The power cuts are some of the worst in several years and a major challenge for President Cyril Ramaphosa two months before an election at which he will try to reverse a decline in voter support for the African National Congress (ANC).

Around 17,000 megawatts (MW) of Eskom’s 45,000 MW installed capacity is unavailable because of problems including faults at the mammoth new Kusile and Medupi power stations, diesel shortages and a loss of imports from Mozambique, which has been battered by a cyclone.

Eskom supplies more than 90 percent of the power in Africa’s most industrialized economy but is saddled with 420 billion rand ($29 billion) of debt. It has implemented power cuts every day since Thursday, with up to 4,000 MW cut from the grid.

“Overcoming load-shedding will be a huge struggle,” Gordhan told reporters, using a South African term for power cuts.

He said engineers were visiting Eskom power stations to assess how long it would take to fix problems there and that once those investigations were complete officials would say more about the power outlook.

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Power outages have disrupted businesses, particularly small- and medium-sized firms who cannot rely on backup power generators, and prompted frustration among ordinary people.

“Customers are staying away from my business,” said Daud, who sells clothes from a tent in downtown Johannesburg. “I can’t cook so my cost of living has also gone up. When will this end?” He declined to give his family name.

Eskom executives are expecting to receive another diesel shipment on Friday, which should help them run backup Open-Cycle Gas Turbines to narrow the generation shortfall.

But it is not clear when more than 1,000 MW of power imports from Mozambique will be restored, as Cyclone Idai has left a trail of destruction in its wake.

Fixing faults at power stations could take weeks or even months, and some of the coal being delivered to Eskom has been substandard.

Eskom Chairman Jabu Mabuza said the utility was looking at whether to halt work on the Medupi and Kusile plants, which are running years and tens of billions of rand behind schedule, but had not arrived at a decision.

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Another concern is the potential for further strikes, as trade unions have expressed anger at government plans to restructure Eskom into three separate units for generation, transmission and distribution.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the biggest union at Eskom, said in a statement on Tuesday that it met Ramaphosa, Gordhan and Energy Minister Jeff Radebe to express its concerns at the proposed restructuring.

NUM said the meeting was productive and that Ramaphosa had given assurances that no jobs would be lost as a result of the plan to spit Eskom.

($1 = 14.4246 rand)

Additional reporting by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Editing by Alison Williams