/ 18 October 2019

Why the power was turned off

On the coal face: Eskom’s maintenance has fallen by the wayside under political pressure.  Plant breakdowns and coal supply problems put the grid under strain and necessitate load-shedding. Photo: Paul Botes
On the coal face: Eskom’s maintenance has fallen by the wayside under political pressure.  Plant breakdowns and coal supply problems put the grid under strain and necessitate load-shedding. (Paul Botes/M&G)




This Wednesday’s breakfast tweet by power utility Eskom that it would be implementing stage 2 load-shedding came 12 months, one day, and a couple of hours after the same announcement last year.

That 2018 announcement was followed by another in December, where unplanned breakdowns saw 9 000 megawatts lost to the grid.

Four months later, in March this year, Eskom went through unprecedented stage 4 load-shedding. That prompted Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, Eskom chairman Jabu Mabuza, then Eskom chief executive officer Phakamani Hadebe, chief operations officer Jan Oberholzer and generation executive Andrew Eztinger in tow — to take media in their confidence in a closed session that laid out the nature of the problems.

Their main solution: to revive critical maintenance-monitoring contracts — worth hundreds of millions — that would allow the utility to pre-empt boiler tube leaks, do maintenance, and avoid unplanned outages.

READ MORE: The high price of coal connections

Six months later, Oberholzer told talk radio host Eusebius McKaiser that over the weekend Eskom lost 10 500MW of power after six power-generation units were lost because of boiler tube leaks. To make matters worse, a further three units were lost on Monday night.

Medupi, Eskom’s latest addition to its fleet of power stations and which has six units, is also producing a third of its capacity since the weekend, because of coal-supply problems. The main conveyor feed into the station broke down, meaning coal has to be trucked in and manually fed into the station.

These leaks and breaks have come as Eskom’s emergency reserves of running water (for its pumped storage plants) and diesel are running low, because they have been used since the start of the year and heavily through winter.

Supply from the Cahora Bassa hydroelectric station in Mozambique, which can supply up to 1 050MW to Eskom, is still being rebuilt after Cyclone Idai destroyed it earlier this year.

To drive home the point of just how dire the situation is, Eskom board member Nelisiwe Magubane was quoted last month as saying that if South Africa’s gross domestic product rises by 0.1% it could trigger load-shedding.

Eskom says it should be operating back at full steam by this time next week.

But a number of current Eskom generation employees — who cannot be named as they are not permitted to speak to the press without prior permission — are hedging their bets on yet another unplanned outage: either in early or late December and then into January.

If that happens, it would make it four unplanned outages in a 14-month period. It does not take an energy expert to figure out that such a high number of plant breakdowns in such a short space of time constitutes a crisis.

Eskom, and its government shareholder — the Department of Public Enterprises — clearly appreciate the damage done by a lack of proper maintenance.

The question is whether there is sufficient political will, capacity to plan, and leadership to address the maintenance problem with as much enthusiasm as Eskom’s financial woes.

Inside the power utility, the view is that political expediency has been put above the health of Eskom’s ageing fleet of power stations.

So hamstrung are things that at Megawatt Park in Sunninghill, Johannesburg, Eskom has not appointed anyone for the maintenance and monitoring contract it said led to the last bout of load shedding in March.

At the time, the Mail & Guardian reported that the contract — which Eskom wanted to re-award in 2017 to Carab Technologies for R311-million over two years — was rejected by the National Treasury, which said the bulk of work could be done internally.

The contract, which includes collecting wear and tear data on the tubes and mapping it to pre-empt failures, was under investigation by the utility’s chief procurement officer earlier this year.

It is unclear what became of that investigation.

Said one engineer: “To be honest, we should have asked the President to tell the nation that we need four to five months of planned and controlled outages, that could be capped at stage 2, to do proper maintenance on all these stations and boiler tubes. Instead, because of election fever, we converted our emergency option (water and diesel plants) to our operational norm leaving us without a back-up option.

“This speaks to the fact that currently there is no one who understands generation in our executive committee to inform decision-makers about the importance of maintenance and monitoring of our boiler tube systems.

“Even our COO [Oberholzer] is a transmission person.”

Another person in the utility said that, although teams at power stations were monitoring and reporting on plant wear and tear, these were mostly disregarded by management.

They added: “We knew this was coming about two weeks ago, that’s why some of our larger customers were asked to reduce their usage. Each station has a boiler engineering manager that has teams of engineers who monitor different systems … If you were to ask for reports, they would give you reports. So, the question is, what is being done with the information by the boiler health forums?”

People in the utility also say that the shift away from coal as the primary source of electricity is affecting decisions to invest properly in coal-powered stations. If South Africa follows through on ambitious plans to lower carbon emissions, many of its coal plants could be shut down in the next five years.

That makes investing anything more in them a difficult financial decision.

Detractors of the move argue that alternative energy will be way too expensive for a citizenry that is already struggling to pay for coal power — Eskom is owed more than R17-billion by consumers including municipalities.

Proponents counter this by saying the rebates that can be earned from using alternative power could offset any envisioned price increases for consumers.

Many of these questions could be answered when clarity is provided about South Africa’s energy mix, with Cabinet signing off on a new national energy plan.

But even then, power plants need maintenance.