There is a cloud hanging over South Africa’s businesses and it’s being produced by Eskom. No, it’s not pollution but rather a figurative cloud consisting of possible power shortages and load shedding. Dark days, of the literal kind, could be ahead even though Eskom has promised to do its best to keep the lights on. The country has been placed on an electricity alert with 500 of the largest electricity consumers, including mines and factories, being asked to keep consumption down to a minimum. If they are unable to do so voluntarily, Eskom has stated that it will implement a mandatory energy conservation scheme.According to Eskom CE Brian Dames, some of the blame for the parastatal’s current woes include heavy rains which have affected coal supplies, an unplanned shutdown at Koeberg nuclear power station, an imminent increase in power demand and uncertain increases in demand over the next few years.It’s a similar refrain from that of 2008, when Eskom stood back and cited equipment failure, wet coal and a lack of infrastructure while the country ground to halt.Despite the similarities, Makwe Masilela, a market analyst at BP Bernstein, says that lessons have been learnt and Eskom will now be better able to manage any crises that arise and take steps to avert disaster. One of the reasons for this is that Eskom is more financially competitive than it was a few short years ago (something consumers know well) and has been able to attract more private investors. It is also more willing to outsource power needs to private providers.According to Elna Moolman, chief economist at Renaissance BJM, another factor in Eskom’s favour is its greater stockpile of coal reserves. In 2008 Eskom had only 12 days’ worth of coal in reserve, these days it averages 41 days.Lack of infrastructure is still a problem, however, and one which will only be effectively addressed when the Medupi power station comes online in 2013. Then there is the coal export problem, that is, more coal is being exported than ever before, which leaves less for Eskom. If Eskom’s managing director of operations and planning, Kannan Lakmeeharan, is to be believed the concern won’t escalate into a threat as the company is negotiating with suppliers about contracts and the quality of supplies.Interestingly, the recovering economy will add to Eskom’s woes as factories that ceased or cut down on production start to operate at full capacity again, and formerly cash strapped consumers stop watching their pennies so very carefully.On the other hand, Tony Twine, a senior economist at Econometrix, said that even the threat of load shedding and unplanned power cuts could affect increased factory output, investment and job creation. “This could lead to constraints on plans put forward by (Economic Development Minister) Ebrahim Patel to use labour-intensive industries to produce jobs,” he said.News agency Bloomberg said, “Investors need to be cautious that as the economy recovers the situation is only going to be worse next year before the next power station comes on line.”While we’re kept in the dark, so to speak, on what to expect from Eskom over the coming 12 month, one thing is certain, once again business and industry sectors and the general public will have to make sacrifices to help a beleaguered parastatal, which should know better, keep us all in hot showers and cold beers.