South Africa’s Power Grid Downed by Rain Shows Its Vulnerability

For more than half a century, South African power utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. has built most of its plants near coal mines and conveyed the bulk of its fuel on conveyor belts that can extend for miles as deposits are depleted.

That model has rendered the generation system vulnerable to heavy rainfall: Several consecutive days of downpours can simultaneously soak through coal stockpiles and interrupt operations to extract new supply.

South Africa’s Power Grid Downed by Rain Shows Its Vulnerability

The problem has surfaced several times over the past few years and manifested again on Friday, when the utility announced nationwide power cuts to protect the national grid because it couldn’t generate enough electricity to meet demand.

Eskom’s generation system has also been plagued by other problems -- from breakdowns at its poorly maintained plants to conveyor-belt fires -- that have caused blackouts and slashed economic output. The utility supplies more than 90% of the power used in Africa’s most industrialized economy, the bulk of it from coal.

The government has made numerous pledges to turn Eskom around, reduce its dependence on environmentally harmful fossil fuels and diversify its energy sources. The latest weather-induced interruption to the electricity supply starkly illustrates why it needs to follow through with far greater urgency.

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