South Africa expects huge power cuts from state-owned Eskom

The state power company is struggling to meet power demand due to worker protests over wage negotiations that are disrupting operations.

South Africa’s power utility Eskom could be forced to implement blackouts of at least six hours a day, after 10 generating units went offline overnight and a strike disrupted its operations.

The cuts were due to begin on Tuesday, company executives said at an emergency briefing.

The so-called “stage 6” power cuts that Eskom is currently facing have only been implemented once in its history, he said. The group’s aging fleet of coal-fired power plants is highly prone to outages, and its ability to get units back into service has been limited by union protests.

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The protests began last week after wage negotiations between Eskom and unions, including the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the National Union of Miners, reached an impasse.

Eskom has implemented phase 4 power cuts requiring up to 4,000 megawatts (MW) to be removed from the national grid since the end of last week. Phase 6 outages would require up to 6,000 MW to remove and have only been implemented once before, in December 2019.

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Eskom chief operating officer Jan Oberholzer said that for most South Africans, Level 6 outages meant at least six hours of power outages during the day.

“We are not at stage 6 yet, but the risk is very high,” he told a press conference on Tuesday. “We will do everything we can to avoid it.”

The rand, which was trading stronger against the dollar at the start of trading, weakened on Eskom’s warning.

The utility plans to meet with union leaders later on Tuesday to try to resolve issues related to the strike, Eskom chief executive Andre de Ruyter said.

Eskom won a court injunction to block the strike, but protests continued.

The loss-making utility, struggling with debt approaching 400 billion rand ($25.2 billion), is trying to contain costs as part of a turnaround plan.

Reforming Eskom is a priority for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government, but efforts to improve its performance have barely yielded results.