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Power crisis eats into South Africa’s university budgets


Cape university spends R1.5 million on diesel power monthly as government “consults” on way forward

With universities in South Africa facing rising costs from intensifying periods of rolling blackouts, researchers fear what will happen to their work should the money run out.

The University of the Western Cape in Cape Town says it spends 1.5 million rand (US$87,000) a month to keep its fleet of backup power diesel generators running when the grid power is switched off.

The institution shared the sum—more than a professor’s annual salary—with Research Professional News as the country’s Department of Higher Education and Training announced it was consulting universities on ways to deal with the blackouts, known as loadshedding.

“I will update the public on these efforts following the conclusion of our internal consultation processes,” higher education and science minister Blade Nzimande said on 24 January.

Finite funds

Loadshedding is intended to protect the integrity of the national grid when generating supply does not meet demand. As South Africa enters its third month of uninterrupted loadshedding, with blackouts lasting 10 or more hours a day, questions are being raised about how universities should fund the additional cost of dealing with this, given their already tight finances.

“The situation is untenable and requires clear short, medium and long-term solutions from government. Getting universities off grid may be a long-term solution but for now universities require assistance to remain functional,” said Phethiwe Matutu, chief executive of Universities South Africa, the umbrella group for the country’s 26 universities.

A big worry for researchers is what happens if universities’ money for diesel runs out. 

Lonnie van Zyl, chief officer of the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics, says his lab runs well on backup generator power for now. He hopes the university will give him plenty of notice if it is about to run out of funds for diesel, so that plans can be put in place to save rare or irreplaceable samples that require cold storage.

Van Zyl’s main concern is his lab’s six -80C freezers. These house microbial isolates and rare samples, some taken from deep-sea trenches using special robots. “If those freezers go down, there is a real risk that we lose those samples forever,” he says.

This was close to happening during the December holidays, when the building’s generator ran out of diesel. “I had to come in at two o’clock in the morning once or twice,” says Van Zyl. “Worst case, I was going to move these -80C freezers out and run them off my own generator.”

No respite in sight

Loadshedding has been a recurring phenomenon in South Africa since 2007. Until last year it was intermittent, with long periods of sustained power between periods of cuts. However, in the second half of 2022 the frequency of power cuts rose to unprecedented levels, with no respite in sight.

Matutu said that Universities South Africa had discussed its concerns around loadshedding with Nzimande and the Department of Higher Education and Training. “The department assured us that they are attending to them,” she said.

Research Professional News asked the department to comment on whether it has considered offering financial support to universities to meet the costs of operating under loadshedding. The department did not respond to the question.

Van Zyl says there is a “very thin silver lining” attached to loadshedding, since it forces students and staff to think creatively about how to carry out their research. “We will make a plan. South Africans are very resourceful,” he says.