/ 22 December 2022

Eskom: Even darker days ahead

Eskom Holdings Soc Ltd Chief Executive Officer Brian Molefe Interview
Eskom told Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts that it was targeting suppliers mentioned in the Zondo report

Eskom has lived up to its June 2022 announcement when it said that as far as load-shedding was concerned, the worst was yet to come.

South Africa has, in 2022, experienced more load-shedding than any previous year since the rolling blackouts started in 2007. 

On 14 December, the embattled power utility’s chief executive, Andre de Ruyter, announced during renewed bouts of stages five and six load-shedding that he was resigning, just days short of being appointed three years ago to the helm of the state-owned enterprise. 

In his exit interview with Eskom during a media briefing, De Ruyter said he was disappointed that he could not achieve all the objectives he had set for himself. 

He blamed the operational and financial difficulties, “challenges surrounding societal matters — crime and corruption — [and] delivering the unbundling of Eskom”. 

“With that said, as the chairman [Mpho Makwana] said, I am in a position [where] I am also dependent on the support of the broader political economy and that is critical to enabling the success of Eskom.”

De Ruyter is to leave the utility in March 2023. He is Eskom’s 13th chief executive since 2000, the majority of the years since then having been riddled with failed maintenance schedules, corruption, sabotage and a lack of skilled management and labour. 

Less than a week after announcing his resignation, the South African National Defence Force said it would be deploying troops to several power plants in an effort to stop rampant infrastructure theft and sabotage. 

The utility’s deep-rooted problems — and controversial public utterances made by Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe days prior to De Ruyter announcing his resignation — have energy analysts saying they are concerned about Eskom’s ability to function amid scheduled long-term maintenance at the Koeberg nuclear power station. Mantashe accused Eskom of “actively agitating for the overthrow of the state”. 

In 1998, the department of minerals and energy said in the White Paper on the Energy Policy of the Republic of South Africa that Eskom’s generation surplus would be “fully utilised by about 2007”. 

Worrying picture 

Last month, the utility announced that load-shedding would continue until 2027. In October, Eskom released a medium-term adequacy report in which it painted a worrying picture of the problems the utility faces internally: “The situation will worsen as the plant performance of Eskom’s fleet continues to trend downwards, power stations shut down and demand grows.”

It noted that after being infiltrated by criminals who stole items such as spare parts and diesel and sabotaged power stations, maintenance could not be achieved, which led to higher stages of load-shedding. 

Diesel and oil was stolen at Tutuka power station, drivers exchanged coal for rock at Matla power station and cables were cut at Hendrina and Tutuka power stations.

Neil Thomas Stacey, a lecturer in biomedical engineering and waste-water management at the University of the Witwatersrand, said Eskom systems continued to fail because extreme pressure and temperature placed severe stress on power plant tubes and, over time, they corrode and fail, sometimes accelerated by the presence of corrosive chemicals in the hot furnace gases. 

“This corrosion inevitably results in a rupture and requires that the whole unit be shut down for maintenance. These occasional failures are a normal part of a power station’s operation, and are factored into power generation planning. 

“When they happen more often than expected, however, they result in under-delivery of power and, in South Africa’s case, load-shedding.”

He added that the utility’s problems underline the continued deterioration of Eskom’s coal station fleet despite attempts to perform better quality maintenance. Availability of power in September was less than 40% of installed capacity.

Energy analyst Clyde Mallinson said the situation was bleak. “What happens in a power station under stress is that sensors and alarms are activated, which requires the operator to manually reduce the load or it could trip. We are starting to see more trips and it is getting worse.”

According to energy analyst Lungile Mashele: “The reality is a horror show. The supply deficit is between double and triple than initially planned, with Eskom calculating the shortfall to be between 4 000 megawatts and 6 000 megawatts.”

Mashele said South Africa has a generating capacity of about 44 000MW, but it uses about 29 000MW a day on average.

“To have more than 19 000MW unavailable due to breakdowns is shocking. We’ve never seen numbers like that. Stage eight will mean no electricity for 12 to 14 hours a day.”

Mashele said Eskom should review its outage schedule, adding that extreme power cuts were possible.

“In 2008, when they came up with stages one to eight, I don’t think they ever thought we were going to get there,” she said. “They need to revise that and be realistic with what is happening on the system and tell us what stage 12 or 15 will look like.”

For the year to end-March, Eskom reported an overall energy availability factor of 62%, but load-shedding intensified since then, with the coal fleet’s energy availability factor dipping well below 60% at times.

In July, an illegal strike added to its woes after it had to implement controlled blackouts equal to more than 90% of the energy it shed for the whole of 2021, according to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Eskom cut 2 276 gigawatt hours of electricity in 2022, compared to the 2 521GW hours cut last year, the CSIR said. 

Eskom switched off supply to large swathes of the country to avoid a total collapse of a grid fed by ageing and unreliable coal plants prone to tripping. By 8 December Eskom’s coal fleet was operating at just 40% of its installed capacity. The new Eskom board expressed its intention to return energy availability to 75%, a target it believes to be achievable, although it will take time.

Eskom previously reported that funding delays, and municipalities’ debt also often force it to delay planned maintenance on units, heightening the risk of failure. 

“Perhaps more alarming, when maintenance is carried out, it doesn’t always meet standards and the units fail anyway,” said Stacey

Calls for state of disaster

In early December, Ghaleb Cachalia, the DA’s spokesperson on public enterprises, asked the cabinet to use its “common sense and declare a ring-fenced state of disaster on Eskom”.

“Faced with this rapidly worsening electricity crisis, the DA has resolved to re-submit our request for a ring-fenced state of disaster on Eskom to be placed on the agenda of the next cabinet meeting.” 

Cachalia said Eskom cannot afford to continue carrying the devastating economic cost of an electricity crisis that becomes more harmful to the country with each day.

“The immediate outcome of a ring-fenced state of disaster on Eskom is that it will enable disaster-relief funding to be sourced from other departments and government resources, and reprioritised to keep the open-cycle turbines running in the immediate term.”