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Blackouts force Ramaphosa to return home

Blackouts force Ramaphosa to return home

JOHANNESBURG – President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday cut short his state visit to Egypt as South Africa’s biggest electricity crisis in more than a decade hit the rand and wobbled the markets, after troubled power utility Eskom implemented more power cuts amid constrained output and flooding that resulted in companies slashing production.

Ramaphosa said he would meet Eskom’s executive to address the crisis, as power cuts weighed on mining and telecommunications after the implementation of stage six load shedding on Monday.

“The ongoing load shedding is devastating for the country… It’s causing our economy great harm and disrupting the lives of citizens,” Ramaphosa said. 

The rand fell more than 1 percent to R14.84 by 5pm yesterday, weakening for the second consecutive day as Eskom lifted load shedding to an unprecedented stage six on Monday.

The FTSE/JSE All Share Index closed 0.27 percent higher at 55 417.93.The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy said that it planned to initiate several interventions, including allowing independent power producers to bring Window 4 capacity on stream earlier.

“This is an urgent and immediate task to ensure economic growth,” the department said. “As part of efforts to ensure security of electricity supply for the country, the minister (Gwede Mantashe) has considered short- and medium-term interventions to both the electricity and energy challenges facing the country,” the department said, adding that the measures would include the drive for the use of liquid petroleum gas.

Mining companies said they were forced to scale back on production, and mobile operator MTN warned that the constant outages were starting to have a direct impact on the performance of the batteries that powered cellphone towers in the event of load shedding.

MTN executive Jacqui O’Sullivan said the frequency of load shedding had resulted in batteries not having enough time to recharge. 

“These batteries generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge,” said O’Sullivan, “which in Stages 3 and 4 load shedding is not happening. This situation is exacerbated by the introduction of Stage 6 load shedding.” 

MTN shares fell 0.21 percent to R85.88; Vodacom 0.71 percent to R114.03; while Blue Label Telecoms, which is the biggest investor in Cell C, eased 2.74 percent to R2.84.

O’Sullivan said said MTN spent nearly R300 million on batteries for existing sites, excluding the amount spent on new batteries for new cellphone towers.

“The extent of the outages has placed a significant strain on MTN’s overall network resources, and teams have had to be reassigned from growth projects to emergency management of sites, due to the load shedding,” said O’Sullivan. 

MTN had 1 800 generators currently in use, she said.

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy said cellphone towers only remained functional as the batteries lasted or the back-up generator kept running. 

“Generators run on diesel, which means they can continue to run while being refuelled,” Kennedy said. “Batteries, on the other hand, will last anywhere from four to eight hours before they will need electricity to recharge.” 

Cell C’s acting chief technology officer, Schalk Visser, said that load shedding had a devastating effect on all mobile operators. 

Visser said load shedding significantly increased operational costs associated with keeping base stations alive and protected. He said vandalism to towers also heightened during load shedding, compounding the costs.

Visser said that generator backup was assigned to high-dependency sites with multiple dependencies, but it was not possible to get to all load shedding-affected areas. 

“Stage 6 load shedding makes this significantly more difficult. Additionally, there is a knock-on effect that lingers after the period of load shedding, when for example substations need to be manually restarted by Eskom,” Visser pointed out.

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