Power down: Living with South Africa's collapsing energy grid

A shop owner picks an item for a customer by candlelight during power outages by South African utility Eskom due to more breakdowns at its ageing coal-fired plants, in Soweto, South Africa, April 20, 2022. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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A shop owner picks an item for a customer by candlelight during power outages by South African utility Eskom due to more breakdowns at its ageing coal-fired plants, in Soweto, South Africa, April 20, 2022. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

What’s the context?

Context correspondent Kim Harrisberg reflects on the daily ramifications of South Africa's worsening electricity crisis

  • South Africa battles worsening power blackouts
  • Interest in green energy alternatives grows
  • Even science museum electricity exhibit down

JOHANNESBURG - My 6-year-old niece's understanding of South Africa's collapsing electricity grid was put into practice one recent weekend when we visited Johannesburg's beloved science museum.

Racing between dinosaur replicas, mirror mazes and giant microscopes she came across the electricity exhibition, with one game instructing visitors to align a handful of batteries and touch either side with supplied cables to power a small train.

Her little fingers rushed to follow the instructions perfectly - only to be met with silence and an unmoving train.

"Load shedding!" she loudly complained, using the term for planned power outages by the state power utility, Eskom. We tried a few other games but none powered up.

Her practical lesson on how electricity should work quickly became an exercise in how it doesn't, more and more often in South Africa these days.

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I laughed at the absurdity of the situation, in the way I have heard many South Africans laughing lately as the electricity grid of the continent's most industrialised economy plunges further into decline. Some days we are left in darkness for up to 10 hours.

We laugh to distract ourselves from our new reality.

"Load shedding" helps reduce demand on South Africa's ailing energy generation system - but the system's decline itself is rooted in mismanagement, infrastructure sabotage and corruption.

Police are currently investigating whether an insider attempt was made to poison Eskom's outgoing chief executive officer Andre de Ruyter, who led a company-wide clampdown on corruption.

The early signs of the power grid collapse began in 2008, when staged power cuts first started - but 2023 is expected to be the worst year yet, trumping 2022's 200 days with power outages.

A supermarket in Johannesburg is plunged into darkness during one of the numerous power cuts rolled out as the country’s electricity grid collapses in South Africa, January 14, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

A supermarket in Johannesburg is plunged into darkness during one of the numerous power cuts rolled out as the country’s electricity grid collapses in South Africa, January 14, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

A supermarket in Johannesburg is plunged into darkness during one of the numerous power cuts rolled out as the country’s electricity grid collapses in South Africa, January 14, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

On the drive home from the museum we paused at non-working traffic lights. Luckily, it was a weekend with few cars on the road. During the week, blackouts can trigger traffic jams that crawl through the city.

The hum of diesel generators kicking in makes the city feel like the streets are vibrating - and drives up climate changing emissions.

Conversations over meals with friends or family these days revolve around the cost of solar panels and battery inverters to power laptops and Wi-Fi, and using headlamps for night-time reading and gas stoves for cooking.

We are adapting, but not without major collateral damage to businesses and the many individuals unable to afford any of the adaptive survival tools.

A restaurant uses candles due to South Africa's struggling power utility Eskom regular power cuts - called 'load-shedding' - because of ageing coal-fired power stations, in Cape Town, South Africa, September 20, 2022. REUTERS/Esa Alexander

A restaurant uses candles due to South Africa's struggling power utility Eskom regular power cuts - called 'load-shedding' - because of ageing coal-fired power stations, in Cape Town, South Africa, September 20, 2022. REUTERS/Esa Alexander

A restaurant uses candles due to South Africa's struggling power utility Eskom regular power cuts - called 'load-shedding' - because of ageing coal-fired power stations, in Cape Town, South Africa, September 20, 2022. REUTERS/Esa Alexander

I often think about the unexpected ramifications of load shedding: a man recently killed by an exploding generator, oxygen machines cutting out in darkened hospitals, muggings of drivers stuck in traffic, women forced to walk home in darkness.

There are many more, including the closure of small businesses bravely trying to tackle our country's 33% unemployment rate.

The only silver lining as our coal-rich nation plunges further into darkness is that one dinner topic has become more common than ever before: the need for more green energy.

Civil society and opposition movements are marching to the ruling party's headquarters and filing lawsuits to demand clarity on the country's future energy plans.

South Africans are asking how government can take advantage of our endless sunshine to grow our fragile economy and lessen our dependency on our volatile and polluting coal-fired power fleet.

The government this week released a statement noting a pricing structure would soon be announced to allow surplus energy from household and business solar panels to be sold to the grid.

There are also myriad private innovations on the rise to make solar energy more affordable including online platforms and apps that allow people to buy solar panels and lease them to people less able to afford them.

There is a waiting list for rent-to-own solar panel installations - a buying plan that makes solar more affordable.

The rising interest in green energy is a testimony to the resilience of South Africans - and to people from many other nations who are also looking for alternatives beyond their own failed state power supplies.

At the science museum there was one other display: a bicycle for children to pedal. Using their kinetic energy, it lit up a row of lightbulbs one by one.

My niece was enchanted and I helped her up to the bike, but her legs were too short to reach the pedals. She stood and watched as older kids hopped on and created green power right in front of her eyes.

My hope is that this is the memory she takes from our visit to the science museum that day.

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg; Editing by Laurie Goering.)


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