If South Africa was to experience a blackout, steps have been taken to control money flow. Photo: Leon Sadiki/Getty Images
As Eskom continues applying load-shedding, citing breakdowns of its power generating units, all recent indicators suggest the situation is even worse that the utility is publicly letting on.
A recent report by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) said Eskom was “not being honest about the extent of the generation units removed from the grid” — backing the case made by some energy experts that the utility has de facto implemented stage eight load-shedding without admitting it, and without approval from the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa).
It is not the first time Eskom has been accused of under-reporting the load-shedding stages it has implemented, with energy analysts such as Ted Blom and Chris Yelland criticising it for its tendency to shed more power from the grid than it reports.
Concerns are rising that the crisis will become even more dire during winter, when the grid comes under more strain. Sources in Eskom have warned that diesel shortages will force the power utility to implement stage eight load-shedding this winter.
“There is serious trouble coming to the utility. Eskom has been stockpiling diesel supplies because of the diesel shortage in the country. We anticipate that the diesel crisis will be higher in winter and a lot of things are bound to go wrong because as diesel supplies become low, it will affect communication networks which affects all our productivity,” one source said.
Another Eskom source said the utility had scheduled higher load-shedding stages in the past, including from July to September, which coincides with the CSIR report’s finding that those months had the most load-shedding in 2022.
“The utility implements higher load-shedding schedules all the time, and only announces the amount that is acceptable for the economy,” the source said. “Some areas in the country experience more than 12 hours of load-shedding a day; it is normal practice. Sometimes it can be a municipality problem but most times it is the utility that sheds that power.”
The source added that last week Eskom lost more than 8 000 megawatts — effectively stage eight load-shedding — but officially stated that it was at stage six.
“What we report to the public is very important, because anything more than the agreed amount would send the markets, the public into panic, and that is unacceptable,” the source said.
Last week, former Eskom spokesperson Sikonathi Mantshantsha posted on Twitter that Eskom’s peak evening data showed that it implemented load-shedding of 7 045 megawatts and 7 092 megawatts — in other words stage seven load-shedding.
Yelland agreed that Eskom had exceeded stage six, saying in a tweet: “More stage six load-shedding that is really stage seven. Sikonathi is quietly telling the truth to power.”
There is a likelihood that Eskom will implement stage eight load-shedding from July, according to Matthew Cruise, head of business intelligence at Hohm Energy.
Eskom could also add stage 10 to its load-shedding schedules, he said. “Eskom said that they are reviewing the process and that the process is underway, but I am pretty sure we will see a stage 10 coming shortly on the load-shedding schedule.”
The CSIR report finds that Eskom’s fleet performance continues to decline with an annual energy availability factor (EAF) of 58.1%, with planned maintenance of 10.6% and unplanned outages of 29.8%.
It added that last year the utility announced 71% of load-shedding levels but the other 29% was not announced.
South Africa has been hit by prolonged stage six load-shedding, caused by multiple unplanned breakdowns totalling more than 21 000 megawatts. Combined with planned outages for maintenance at 3 566 megawatts, more than half of Eskom’s installed generation capacity was unavailable — a new record. South Africa is now the closest it has ever been to stage eight load-shedding, which will mean no electricity for 12 to 14 hours a day.
Eskom’s acting generation manager, Thomas Conradie, has said that achieving an energy availability factor of 60% by year-end is “not possible”. Eskom has only a few weeks left in the current financial year, which ends on 31 March.
Conradie supported the CSIR’s view that high levels of unplanned breakdowns that were not anticipated, combined with planned maintenance, have contributed to Eskom failing to achieve the 60% target.
“When we were doing forecasting for year-end, we didn’t anticipate for Kusile units — all three — to be offline for an extended period,” said Conradie during a media briefing last week.
The units shut down as a result of a flue-duct collapse in October. There are six units in total, each capable of generating 800 megawatts.
This is despite the Eskom board’s promise to parliament’s standing committee on public accounts to improve the energy availability factor to 70% in the coming two years. That means 60% by 31 March 2023, 65% the following year and 70% by March 2025.
Yelland said that if the 60% energy availability factor target for year-end is to be met, then for the next few weeks, the EAF has to be above 60% to raise the average. This will be “absolutely impossible”.
Energy expert Lungile Mashele said the CSIR report came at a time when the country had entered stage eight load-shedding, “as the average Eskom fleet EAF in 2022 was below 60% for the first time in its history, which was a testament to the ongoing challenges with their breakdowns”.
“The CSIR has been publishing their report for a number of years and what started as a consistent stage two in 2020 escalated to a consistent stage four in 2022, which is the worst year of load-shedding this country has ever experienced,” Mashele said.
“2023 will not be any better, as it stands Eskom has surpassed the previous record for continuous load-shedding. We are now also experiencing stage eight as a country, which indicates a significantly constrained grid which is susceptible to a total blackout,” she said.
“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.”
Eskom’s system operator general manager, Isabel Fick, said the utility and Nersa were preparing schedules from stage eight to stage 16.
Specifications developer NRS Association of South Africa is working with Eskom and Nersa to review the load-shedding framework to prepare municipalities for higher stages of load-shedding.
Nersa’s spokesperson, Charles Hlebela, said Eskom is empowered in terms of the Grid Code to implement any intervention it deems necessary to ensure the stability of the power system.
Hlebela said it is a matter of time before the utility implements higher stages as soon as energy regulator updates the NRS code of practice framework needed.
Bloomberg reports that the Western Cape’s premier, Alan Winde, met Eskom’s former chief executive, André de Ruyter, shortly after he tendered his resignation in December, to seek advice on how the province should approach energy provision.
“He said you’ve got to become independent as quickly as possible,” Winde recalled.
De Ruyter didn’t provide much detail but said “there’s big trouble ahead and, you know, do what you can”, Winde said.
Former Eskom spokesperson Mantshantsha said: “Eskom manages the power system continuously in real time to ensure there’s sufficient supply to always meet demand. This is being done by reducing the demand to match available supply at all times while maintaining a buffer reserve.
“Demand may exceed the previously announced estimate, which forces Eskom to lift the level of load-shedding without announcing it. As you will see in the figures, it is accurate to say at that particular time last night, load-shedding was stage seven,” he said.
Conradie said that last week Eskom had stage four curtailment at the same time as stage six load-shedding, which explained the load reduction of 7 000 megawatts during a number of evening peaks last week.
“Eskom ought to have more clearly communicated this to prevent the media and commentariat on Twitter from jumping to conclusions,” he said at the briefing on Friday.
Conradie confirmed that there had been a risk of exceeding stage six during the week, when high levels of unplanned outages were further amplified by the shutting of all but one of the six units at the normally reliable Lethabo power station for a period, because of coal constraints arising from an extended period of heavy rain.
An Eskom official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said although the utility had been making arrangements to increase load-shedding stages, it is desperately trying to avoid introducing stage eight rotational power cuts.