Eskom cannot rule out more rolling blackouts in coming months

There is “no magic wand” to rid South Africa of the current bout of load-shedding as Eskom faces a myriad of historical, financial and technical problems which have contributed to the current power outages, Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

Gordhan, Eskom board chairperson Jabu Mabuza and senior Eskom management provided an update regarding the rolling blackouts that have been scaled up to level four — where the national grid needs to shed 4 000 megawatts of electricity.

The power utility has warned that it cannot rule out the continued possibility of load shedding for the coming six to twelve months.

Eskom is facing a host of problems. The performance of its generation plant remains unpredictable and there has been an increase in unplanned outages — or breakdowns at its power stations — by 13 000 megawatts against a projected 8 000MW. Along with planned maintenance around 17 000MW of capacity is unavailable.

READ MORE: Energy sector favours home-grown help for Eskom

There has also been an increase in boiler tube leaks — which are difficult to repair and require the shutdown of generation units to repair, taking days to bring back online. A total of 7 power generation units are down due to these leaks the company’s chief operations officer Jan Oberholzer said. “This is biting us big time,” he told journalists gathered in Johannesburg.

The company is also facing challenges with diesel supply to its open cycle gas turbines. Since industrial action mid-year last year — which sparked a renewed round of load-shedding — Eskom spending on diesel to supply demand had reached almost R5-billion.

Eskom must also conserve water reserves at its three pumped storage schemes to enable it to supply power over periods — namely the mornings and evenings.

READ MORE: Medupi and Kusile: Costly and faulty

Imports of power from Mozambique have also been hampered, following the cyclone in the country, which typically supplies around 1 158MW of power.

In addition to these problems, the new Medupi and Kusile power stations have not been performing optimally and their units, which are commercially operational, have been subject to a number of trips and breakdowns.

Mabuza stressed that given Eskom’s ageing power plants — over half of them are older than 37 years — much more intensive maintenance of its plant was required in recent years. Instead he said that in the last six years, spending on maintenance has been reduced.

READ MORE: Eskom cliffhanger has SA on edge

“The reality is that we now have a plant that is falling [over] owing to [poor] maintenance,” Mabuza said. “If that money was not spent on maintenance the question is what was that money spent on?”

Given the limited options before Eskom to increase supply “the last resort” has been to load shed said Mabuza. “It is not something that is taken lightly, we understand the inconvenience and pain,” Mabuza added.

But this discomfort is something that needed to take place to allow Eskom the time it needed to fix its equipment he said.

A number of plans and programmes are in place to assist Eskom in addressing the problem.

These include the utility’s nine-point turn around plan, a report drawn up the Eskom Sustainability task teamappointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa last year. A technical review teamhas also been appointed by Gordhan to review Eskom’s technical operations at its various power stations.

“At this point in time we are still getting a better grasp of the technical problems that Eskom power stations are confronting…and we need to complete these investigations,” Gordhan said. He committed to reporting back to the public in the coming 10 to 14 days to outline what the problems were and what is needed to fix them.

To lighten the burden on load-shedding on South Africans — Eskom is working with municipalities, business and other customers to better ‘orchestrate’ load-shedding to cause the least amount of damage Gordhan said.

He pleaded with South Africans to assist Eskom by reducing demand and switching off non-essential appliances. “At the end of the day we don’t want to get to a scenario where we go beyond stage four,” the minister said. But if this becomes a reality, he promised that Eskom and government would communicate this in an open and transparent manner.

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.
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