Not just now. Now! Eskom urges SA to cut power use

Eskom’s chief executive, Brian Dames, has called on South Africans to shave 10% off their electricity usage with the goal of saving 3 000MW, so that the power utility can perform badly needed maintenance on its ageing power stations.

“If we save 10% across all customer bases — or 3 000 megawatts (MW) — we should be able to have a secure power system in the country,” he said. In comparison, Eskom’s Kendal power station generates 3 600MW of power.

Dames, who was speaking at a quarterly update on the state of the power system at Megawatt Park, the Eskom head office in Johannesburg, called on South African citizens, businesses and municipalities to work together to make sharp cuts to their electricity consumption and to do this “now, immediately”.

Eskom has for a number of years warned that the power system would be under severe pressure for the next five years, and that 2012 would be the peak of the crisis. Units at the new power stations at Medupi and Kusile will be commissioned between 2013 and 2019.

Most of the country’s power stations are reaching their midlife point, having been built over 30 years ago, and require more maintenance. But there isn’t enough power in the system to provide the buffer needed to allow Eskom to carry it out. Dames said that because of this, the country’s whole power system is becoming increasingly unreliable.

“Ten percent of the time we’d like to take our plants [offline] and do maintenance. Until now, we haven’t been able to do that,” said Dames. He said the power utility was struggling to keep up with the 7% maintenance ratio that it needed to keep the country’s power stations in optimal condition and that because of high demand, maintenance outages had in many instances been delayed.

“There’s just not enough space in our supply system for us to do [the maintenance],” he said. “We need to plan the system to make sure that we have adequate reserve capacity — We can deal with it if we have 10% saving across all customer bases.”

Dames said that in the past year, of the 36 maintenance outages required, nine had been completed, three were under way and six had been scheduled. “That leaves us with 18 — and we’ve identified further outages,” he said.

“Shifting [or postponing] maintenance outages can no longer be sustained,” said Dames.

“Summer is the maintenance season in Eskom. We have been running the [power] system at higher levels of risk to deal with the backlog of maintenance and to keep up with demand at the same time,” he said. “We’re giving [the engineers] an impossible situation to manage. They know what they need to do, they just need the time to do it.”

Dames said that the load over the summer months had been higher than expected — probably because of the great strain of air conditioning and refrigeration requirements — and that this had reduced the space available to do maintenance.

“We have increasingly used the open cycle gas turbines but this is an expensive way to balance supply and demand,” he said. Dames said it costs 38c for a standard power station to produce one unit of electricity but that, because of the high cost of diesel, it costs about R2.50 to generate a unit of power using an open cycle gas turbine.

He said that the utility had taken various steps to alleviate the load on the power system, including securing power purchase agreements with two municipalities, securing more non-Eskom generated energy, signing power buy-back agreements, obtaining voluntary cooperation over peak periods from large customers, and securing deals to import power from across the borders when needed.

Dames said that it was possible to achieve the savings Eskom was seeking and pointed out that, through a voluntary energy conservation scheme, some of its customers had managed to cut 10% of their power use while maintaining or even increasing productivity. Other key industrial customers had mad savings of between 6% and 9%.

“We do not want to go back to load shedding but we alone as Eskom can’t [prevent that], we need all South Africans [to help],” he said.

Dames said that power constraints were not just a national issue, it’s a global issue. He pointed out that when Brazil found itself in a similar situation a number of years ago, it managed to achieve a 20% saving on energy and still managed to grow its economy. “There’s no reason why we as South Africa cannot do the same,” he said.

Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba said deferring maintenance any further would result in outages and would place the safety of people and assets at risk. “This is no longer an option. We need to find the space to do enough maintenance in order to improve the performance of our plants,” he said.

Gigaba called on all sectors to work with Eskom to relieve pressure on the power system. “Responsible citizenship from corporates and individuals to work with Eskom to relieve the load so that electricity supply could be maintained,” he said.

“This moment calls for active citizenship on the part of individual South Africans and corporate South Africa because all of us acting together can do something significant to get through this challenge,” said Gigaba.

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