/ 17 March 2023

Some light at the end of Eskom’s tunnel

Eskom Getty
The government has proposed that allocations to Eskom through the debt relief programme be cut by R2 billion, citing the power utility’s failure to dispose of its finance company. (Getty Images)

Eskom’s short-term objective to reduce the severity of load-shedding looked like it was taking shape as the utility announced that the performance of some of its coal-fired power stations was improving.

The utility said this would reduce load-shedding.

“Load-shedding will be suspended, where possible, over the weekend and varied between stages one and two for other periods.”

This bodes well for the utility’s target of achieving 70% energy availability by 2025. Eskom announced on Thursday that six of its coal-fired power stations had achieved energy availability factors (EAF) of 70% over the past week, “a milestone last achieved on 8 May 2022”.

“Three of these power stations, Camden, Duvha and Matla, have been on a sustained upward trend as a result of a reduction of plant breakdowns and the return to service of a number of units that were on unplanned breakdowns,” acting chief executive Calib Cassim said.

Eskom said the Lethabo, Matimba and Medupi plants had also been showing positive performance.

The utility has been under pressure to reduce the frequency of load-shedding by improving the performance of power stations and stabilising the energy system for some time. Prior to Thursday’s announcement, the energy availability factor was 58%, according to the Eskom Weekly System Status Report

Eskom’s long-term objective is to end load-shedding and achieve energy security by adding as much new generation capacity to the grid as possible.

“While this is still early progress, it shows a positive trajectory from actions taken to recover Eskom generation plants. This is consistent with Eskom’s target to achieve 70% achieved EAF by the 2025 financial year,” said Cassim.

Eskom’s board chairperson, Mpho Makwana, said this proved it would be able to improve the national energy availability.

“The marked improvement in performance at Camden, Duvha, and Matla, as well as the sustained commendable performance at Lethabo, Matimba and Medupi, gives assurance that if we continue to apply an all-hands-on-deck approach, we will continue to improve the energy availability.”

“I specifically commend the various teams at these power stations for the great work and also applaud all the Eskom employees for their continued hard work and dedication,” added Makwana.

Eskom said it would continue to pursue its generation recovery programme to achieve sustained improvement in power generation.

The announcement came as Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy approved Kusile’s grant of an exemption to operate temporary stacks without the use of the flue gas desulphurisation mechanism for 13 months, despite warnings that this could pose a health risk for surrounding communities.

In the statement, Creecy said the exemption, in terms of the Air Quality Act, had been granted on 14 March in response to an application she had received from Eskom about Kusile. It had been brought because of “the urgent need to alleviate the electricity crisis in the country”.

She said Eskom would need to apply to the national air-quality officer for a once-off postponement with the compliance timeframes for minimum emission standards for new plants. The once-off postponement is only valid until 31 March 2025, in terms of the regulations.

The cabinet, in a statement, welcomed the decision by Creecy to grant Eskom an exemption from the lengthy process required to amend its Atmospheric Emission Licence. 

“According to Eskom, this exemption will enable it to implement a temporary solution to the damage at Kusile power station by November 2023 and thus allow the power station to resume generation capacity of 2 100 megawatts which will reduce South Africa’s exposure to load-shedding by two levels,” it said.

The Mail & Guardian previously reported that, according to environmentalists, the emissions could cause various health problems, including respiratory disease, chronic wheeze, decline in lung function, upper-respiratory irritation and bronchoconstriction. Chronic exposure could cause premature deaths.

“If Kusile operates at its pre-stack-collapse production rates of about 33% for 13 months, as proposed, it is projected that 195 people will die from the … pollution. If it operates at 100% for 13 months, 492 people are projected to die,” they said.

In other news, S&P Global Ratings put Eskom’s debt assessment on positive watch, meaning it could upgrade it.

The move follows the announcement last month that Eskom will receive R254 billion in debt relief from the government, the ratings company said on Tuesday.

Eskom said this was an indication to the market that the agency could improve Eskom’s credit rating by one or more notches, based on its expectation that Eskom’s liquidity position would be strengthened by the debt relief.

“The announcement by S&P Global is extremely positive in that it endorses the positive impact of the debt relief on Eskom’s financial position and overall liquidity. It will also serve to allay fears lenders and creditors of Eskom might have with respect to Eskom’s financial stability,” Cassim said.

Mandisa Nyathi is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa