South Africa’s energy crisis ‘damages research integrity’

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Researchers in South Africa are feeling the effects of ongoing power outages in the country and fear the impact the electricity crisis is having on their research output.

The crisis is due to aging infrastructure, mismanagement by the state-owned electricity company—Eskom, poor investment in the energy sector, and limited energy resources

Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd, South Africa’s main energy provider, implements what is called load shedding, imposing blackouts for several hours each day in a planned and coordinated manner across the country.

“Load shedding is done to protect the national electricity grid by balancing supply and demand,” Eskom says in a tweet on February 27. “If this is not done, the national grid will be completely shut down and the entire country will be blacked out for days to weeks.”

Nonhlanhla Vilakazi, a senior lecturer in the zoology department at the University of Johannesburg, tells us that frequent power outages are affecting research in South Africa. “The reduction in load has affected many scientists and affected their research results,” he says.

Cola Mthembu, a PhD candidate in the microbiology department at the University of South Africa, is one example. He says that “Frequency of clipping causes disruption of sample integrity in laboratories.”

“Research and testing completion times are very late,” Mthembu tells us. “Financially, labs spend huge amounts on reagents and equipment, and backup systems to keep up with load shedding are not cheap for labs that already spend a lot on sample processing.”

Mthembu says researchers need to keep a close eye on scheduled load shedding times and try to work around it.

“Otherwise, it’s a matter of having backup power for core samples or using various freezing methods that will ensure sample integrity when power eventually comes back on,” he adds.

Adjusting to the different load shedding schedules has been a nightmare for Mthokozisi Moyo, a PhD candidate in the department of animal, plant and environmental science at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Moyo tells us that he was forced to go back to the “old school” way of doing things, in the digital age. “I wrote things down on paper and … then typed when I had access to power,” he explains.

Gwede Mantashe, South Africa’s mineral resources and energy minister, told the Mining Indaba conference earlier this month (February 6-9) that there was a long-term energy security plan to resolve the issue of load shedding.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster over the energy crisis during his State of the Nation address on February 9.

However, in a response to a constitutional challenge brought against him by the opposition party, Ramaphosa later said that the responsibility of providing electricity did not lie with him, but only with local authorities.

Lungile Mashele, an independent energy expert based in South Africa, tells us that the load shedding resulted in the loss of valuable samples and data, which could affect her research results for years to come. He says it’s a struggle to find alternative energy sources, as mini-substations – an electrical connection system designed in smaller sizes – are expensive and not easily accessible to most South Africans.

Mashele tells us that science plays a critical role in developing alternative energy sources to increase the current low capacity.

“Scientists must be at the forefront of addressing the energy issue. We must find ways to advance science without electricity,” he says.

Vilakazi adds, “As researchers, we’ve been preaching to save planet Earth. I think it’s time to act and not rely on the government. I think scientists should be at the forefront of addressing this power issue.”

“We need to find ways to advance science without electricity, find new solutions, and work to design and build equipment that doesn’t rely solely on electricity.”

Reference: South Africa’s energy crisis ‘damages research integrity’ (2023, March 3) Retrieved March 4, 2023, from

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