Power cuts cripple Southern Africa
South Africa announced Sunday that it will temporarily stop exporting power to its neighbors.
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Zambia, whose growing economy is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign copper mining companies, faces a similar problem. The blackouts caused Konkola Copper Mines, the country's largest copper mine, to shut down almost all of its operations.Skip to next paragraph
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Zambia possesses more than 40 percent of the region's fresh water and plenty of waterfalls, and relies on a handful of hydroelectric plants. But underinvestment in energy production, combined with the recent opening of new mines in north and northwestern Zambia, fueled by high global copper prices, has strained the system.
China to the rescue?
Currently, China is helping to expand the hugely important Kariba Dam on Lake Kariba, which straddles the Zambia-Zimbabwe border and serves as a key source of hydropower for both nations. India's Tata Holdings is working with ZESCO on a $150 million hydroelectricity project on the Kafue River. But dams also raise environmental concerns.
With the changing climate making rainfall more erratic in the region, Francis Yamba, director of the Centre for Energy, Environment, and Engineering in Lusaka, is pushing the Zambian government to look at feeding renewable energy into the national power grid and incorporating energy-efficiency measures. "In this country, energy is not used efficiently," he says.
In the wake of the national power outages, mines are scrambling to buy diesel generators, adding pressure to Zambia's diesel supply. Australian-owned mining firm African Energy Resources has set up a separate venture to encourage Zambian farmers to grow jatropha, a plant whose seeds can be turned into biodiesel. The farmers could then sell the biodiesel to mines, making money and lessening the strain on the energy infrastructure, says Alasdair Cooke, African Energy's executive director.
Next door, Mozambique, Namibia, and Botswana are all planning major power generation projects that, when completed, are expected to ease the crunch. In addition to more coal-fired power plants, South Africa is planning to renew its nuclear energy program.
All that will go a long way to easing the problem, Bennett says. But South African leaders will also have to find a way to reduce the country's energy demand, perhaps with financial incentives for those who agree to use less power.
"It's not going to happen next week or next year," Bennett says. "It's an amazingly complex problem we face."
"For sports enthusiasts, this is a very bad time," says Mr. Lubinda, who worries about ZESCO's ability to keep the power supply stable "For the economy, there can never be a good time."