plans to avoid 2010 power cuts

South Africa, still scarred by the memory of paralysing blackouts a year ago, wants to avoid a repeat of the national power cuts at all costs when it hosts the 2010 soccer World Cup.

South Africa, still scarred by the memory of paralysing blackouts a year ago, wants to avoid a repeat of the national power cuts at all costs when it hosts the 2010 soccer World Cup.

With 500 days to go before the global tournament, generators are being installed in every stadium, the power grid is going under careful surveillance, and engineers will be placed on call 24 hours a day to ensure the games go smoothly.

"We would have been prepared, but with the crisis we are probably going to be over-prepared," said Fani Zulu, spokesman for the public power company Eskom.

"There is a lot of anxiety to say that South Africa has to deliver this and Eskom is part of that South African team, so Eskom has to work as hard as everyone else in the team to deliver this."

Until last year, South Africa had coasted on ageing infrastructure that had provided cheap and abundant power, without upgrading the system to provide for the growing demand and dwindling backup supplies.

Today the gap between supply and demand is about four percent, but the safety margin should be 15 percent, according to a Fifa document on the World Cup's energy needs.

As for every World Cup, Fifa requires each stadium to run off its own generator rather than relying on the local power supply. That ensures that the matches are held as scheduled, and that live television coverage runs as planned.

But the event isn't confined to the stadiums, organisers note.

"We want to make sure, even if there is a power supply interruption in a township that has nothing to do with the World Cup, we get the inconvenience to a minimum, because in that township you will have thousands of people watching game on television," Zulu said.

To do that, Eskom has created a special unit that created an action plan with the government, host cities and businesses.

That doesn't mean that Eskom will necessarily have to increase production. During the World Cup in Germany, demand grew by only 170 megawatts for each match, the company notes.

Eskom plans to ensure the supply by reducing exports during the tournament, and to handle maintenance work ahead of time.

The Southern Africa Power Pool has also agreed to allow the country to import more electricity if needed.

But the real test will be for Eskom to respond quickly to problems with stations and the power grid in the event of a breakdown.

Eskom plans to set up special command centre that Zulu likened to the cockpit of an airplane, where experts can monitor in real time the electrical networks in each host city. Teams will staff the centres 24 hours a day.

Zulu declined to say how much the company was spending on the project, saying the money would come from existing budgets to upgrade the national network.

Their efforts appear to be winning over critics, including Michael Tatalias, head of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, who had raised alarms last year that the contingency planning only covered the stadiums.

"The stadiums may have all the most wonderful generators in the world to broadcast the games, but will people come to South Africa to see them if they know they will be going back to hotels and guesthouses with no power?" he asked during a public forum last year.

Now he sounds like a convert.

"After all the fuss last year ... I must say they had very good plans," he told AFP.

"I am a lot more confident," Tatalias said.

"I am impressed. Now it is time to see whether they will be able to implement their plans." - Sapa-AFP