back to the dark ages

Comment by Joel Avni

Comment by Joel Avni

Welcome to the Dark Ages.

South Africa has run out of electricity to power our homes, offices, businesses and our economy. And there is little the country can do about it for the next five to eight years.

Eskom, the national electricity supply company, wants us all to cut our electricity consumption by 20 percent. But even if we did, we will still face blackouts.

Demand has risen so high that the utility's 17 main power stations can't meet the national need.

Eskom saw the problem coming 10 years ago and asked the government to cough up the cash for new generating stations. But they were turned down.

"We said not now, later. We were wrong. Eskom was right," President Thabo Mbeki conceded a month ago.

Now the president's legacy as the master of the booming South African economy might come crashing down.

We have already consumed the surplus capacity left behind by the apartheid regime and are pressing mothballed white elephants back into service. But the new regime failed abysmally to plan for the future, which is crashing down on us now.

Unless we urgently start rationing power, load shedding will only get worse over the next five to eight years when the next two new big power stations come online.

Eskom can't do much about it until then because it takes at least eight years to plan, design and build one of the larger generating plants that power our national electrical network.

Individual consumers are inconvenienced by power cuts; businesses will be driven into bankruptcy. The power utility has already advised the government not to take on any more plum job-creating mega-projects such as smelters over the next eight years.

Demand has been rising steadily by 10 percent a year.

Our economy has thrived on the cheapest electricity in the world. Pent-up demand from millions of frustrated consumers and the economy that thrived on their expenditure has powered South Africa to the forefront of the world's emerging markets.

But those days are over. New generating facilities will be much more expensive than the inefficient plants of old, which have destroyed the environment of great swaths of South Africa and the health of its inhabitants.

Our cheap, dirty coal makes SA one of the greatest per capita generators of climate-changing greenhouse gases in the world.

Eskom is already spending R300 billion to catch up. More will be needed and someone will have to pay. Expect the cost of power to double in the next five years.

But for the next eight years power will be unavailable for love or money. This will change the economic face of the country. Jobs will be shed, new businesses will look elsewhere and we will go back to the economic Dark Ages.

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