Eskom will try to avoid blackouts during local government elections

Eskom is confident it can reduce the risk of load-shedding during the upcoming local government elections to a minimum, according to the ailing state power utility’s chief operating officer Jan Oberholzer.

Eskom will avoid power cuts by drawing on its emergency reserves during the day and replenishing those reserves at night, Oberholzer said at a briefing on Monday morning on the state of the utility’s operations.

Oberholzer said Eskom was working closely with the Electoral Commission of South Africa to ensure that electricity was available at voting stations when citizens went to cast their ballots on 1 November.

“I’ve spoken to the generation, transmission and distribution colleagues to be on standby from the end of this week until after the voting has taken place to make sure that, where we do have challenges, the Eskom colleagues will assist,” he said.

Eskom has emergency generators that can be used to supply electricity to voting stations experiencing power outages, Oberholzer noted, adding: “SWe are extremely committed as Eskom to make sure that there is no electricity challenge going through the elections that are around the corner.”

Eskom, saddled with a creaking generation infrastructure after years of poor maintenance, has been forced to implement intermittent rolling blackouts for the past 13 years or so to avoid overwhelming the national grid.

Monday’s briefing on Eskom’s state of operations came just hours after the utility suspended the most recent round of load-shedding.

On Sunday it said in a statement the country could expect more blackouts on Monday and Tuesday nights, as only some progress had been made in efforts to replenish its emergency generation reserves. After the loss of its Koeberg Unit 1 — at Eskom’s nuclear plant — on Sunday morning, the utility will likely have to use emergency reserves extensively during the next few days to avoid load-shedding.

During Monday’s briefing, Oberholzer noted that, since September, Eskom has increased its planned maintenance programme to an average 5 500 megawatts (MW) of capacity — almost double the average maintenance carried out between September 2019 and April 2020.

“Our objective is to achieve a reliable and sustainable generation plant, thereby reducing the risk and frequency of the occurrence of load-shedding. As such, Eskom will not compromise on reliability maintenance and mid-life refurbishment,” Oberholzer said. 

“However painful in the short term, this maintenance we have to do to ensure future reliability.”

In a statement accompanying the briefing, Eskom conceded that the rotational power cuts were a significant drag on South Africa’s economy, which is still reeling from the blow dealt by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are aware that the increased maintenance does elevate the probability of load-shedding in the short term. But this is necessary to improve the future performance of the generation fleet,” Oberholzer said.

In the year to date, the energy availability factor (EAF) has declined to 65%, missing a target of 70%, the statement noted, adding: “A key contributor to the low EAF was the high levels of planned maintenance during the summer months. However, there has also been an increase in unplanned outages during this period.”

South Africa needs an additional 4 000MW to 6 000MW of capacity to help Eskom undertake its maintenance programme, Oberholzer emphasised.

“Because Eskom — at this point in time — we are shy [of capacity]. And what we have available in terms of capacity to grow the economy of the country is really challenging,” he said.

Oberholzer apologised for the latest round of blackouts and asked the public to use electricity sparingly: “If you do not have to run your swimming pool pump for eight hours a day, please don’t do that. If you do have a timer for your geyser, please make sure that it is only used to really have your water hot. And if you don’t have to have a light that is on, please switch it off.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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