Load Shedding Drowns South Africa’s Wine Industry Worth R55 Billion

The Dilemma: A Blooming Vineyard Amidst a Power Crisis

Berene Sauls, founder of Tesselaarsdal Wines, is grappling with a new adversary that’s wreaking havoc on her vineyard nestled two hours southeast of Cape Town: South Africa’s energy crisis. Due to recurring power outages, harvesting, bottling, and even the labelling of her Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are significantly delayed.

“It’s stressful,” says Sauls, a veteran of the wine industry for over two decades. “We have eight hours of work production and only four hours of power.”

The Cause: Underinvestment in Power Generation

Decades of neglect in South Africa’s dilapidated coal-fired power plants have left the national utility, Eskom, struggling to keep the nation energized. The mismatch between supply and demand forces Eskom to resort to rolling outages – a practice locally known as ‘load shedding’ – impacting every facet of society, from schools and hospitals to restaurants and businesses.

The Economic Impact: A Constrained Growth

The central bank estimates that load shedding curtailed economic growth by as much as 3.2 percentage points last year. This year’s growth is forecasted to be a meagre 0.4%. South Africa’s centuries-old wine industry, contributing more than R55 billion to the national GDP last year, has been hit particularly hard.

Effects on Wine Production: From Vine to Bottle

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According to Vinpro’s communications manager Wanda Augustyn, disruptions in irrigation due to power cuts can lead to “partial stresses” for vines, reducing both the size and quantity of fruits. The process of grape harvesting also suffers if power cuts impede refrigeration or climate control, leading to overripe or damaged grapes. Bottling lines too come to a halt, causing delays and material wastage.

Adaptations and Coping Mechanisms: From Generators to Cost Cutting

In response to the crisis, Sauls’ small winery races against time to prepare, label and package bottles ahead of the next blackout. She admits, “We can’t sell it if we don’t have the means to package it,” alluding to their inability to afford a backup generator for their packing shed.

The Larger Picture: Expensive Power and Sustainable Alternatives

The irregular power supply comes with an added sting – high cost. The National Energy Regulator of South Africa has granted Eskom permission to hike prices, leaving businesses like the famous Steenberg Vineyards to contemplate sustainable alternatives, including solar, inverters, and batteries.

The Future: Seeking Aid and Exploring Alternatives

The wine industry in South Africa, which exported wines worth R10 billion last year, faces a grim future. Rico Basson, CEO of the South Africa Wine industry body, emphasizes the need for support, particularly for smaller wineries. He notes, “Smaller farms and cellars may, however, experience a lot of challenges because it is just too costly to invest in generators.”

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Conclusion: A Desperate Call for Governmental Intervention

The Western Cape government, which houses the majority of the nation’s wine industry, is anxious over the blackouts and has commissioned a report assessing their impact. It’s clear that if load shedding intensifies beyond stage 6, the current model of irrigated wine grape production will be unsustainable. The national government has responded by announcing a fund to help farmers invest in alternative energy sources, a critical move towards saving South Africa’s historic wine industry from its unforeseen nemesis – load shedding.