Johannesburg – Expect rolling blackouts for every week until at least December. That’s the bleak outlook for the country’s precarious energy supply from energy expert Lungile Mashele.
While she, along with several other experts, have welcomed Eskom’s surprise move yesterday that saw two senior managers from Tutuka and Kendal coal-fired power stations suspended in a week in which the country was plunged into Stage 4 power cuts, Mashele emphasised there’s more Eskom must do.
“Eskom has been losing a number of generation units and this is primarily because their units are old and volatile and were meant to be decommissioned in 2017 already,” said Mashele.
“We had a conversation with (Eskom spokesperson) Sikonathi Mantshantsha yesterday and he was basically confirming, in essence, that we are maintaining assets we should have decommissioned a long time ago. So we’re throwing money down the drain … We should be rather focusing on new assets that we should be investing in. This is a key reason why we are having so many breakdowns.
“We are heading into our summer maintenance as well so we’re definitely going to be experiencing load shedding until at least December. The outlook is very bleak with load shedding expected every week.”
Mashele didn’t rule out stage 6 blackouts, either. “It’s very possible that we could go into stage 6 if we keep on losing more generation assets as we are now. Just this week we lost 21% of our installed capacity and all it needs for us to go to stage 6 is if we lose an additional 2 000 megawatts (MW) over and above that. Then we are definitely in trouble.”
While Eskom is “overhauling and changing management and people”, it’s not enough.
“We don’t have the requisite skills to run and operate and maintain plants. We also still have difficulty getting original equipment manufacturers in. The other thing that Eskom needs to work on as a matter of urgency is getting Medupi and Kusile to full optimal capacity, she said.
“Currently we are losing units at those plants, which doesn’t make sense. It’s got to do with welding and fixing boiler tube leaks. These two plants need to get fixed, there is no excuse. Eskom says they are looking at getting Medupi back and running at full capacity by November 2020 and Kusile by September 2021, so we shall see.”
Yesterday’s announcement of the suspensions provided a glimmer of hope for South Africans battling with a depressed economy on the back of the Covid-19 lockdown. The move to suspend the power station managers from two of the biggest generating plants was confirmed in a strongly worded statement by Eskom yesterday, as the country moved to stage 3.
Citing unplanned breakdowns that led to an energy demand deficit of about 3 000MW, aggravated by increased demand because of cold weather, Eskom said while its ageing fleet “is plagued by legacy issues of neglect and omitted maintenance and is therefore susceptible to unpredictable breakdowns, it is also true that the situation is exacerbated by serious issues of apathetic behaviour by some management staff”.
The Eskom Board, working closely with the executive management team headed by group chief executive Andre de Ruyter, supported the suspension of the two managers pending disciplinary inquiries, adding that “further interventions are ongoing at the Kriel and Duvha power stations.
“Engagements have been held with other power station managers to ensure that the previous culture of weak consequence management will no longer be the norm and no longer be tolerated,” it said.
Energy expert, Chris Yelland, said the suspensions were a positive move, indicating that Eskom were going to hold staff accountable, particularly senior management.
“They are some very highly paid people at Eskom and there’s a lot of mediocrity there. There’s a drive for a new culture of accountability and under the new leadership, they are expecting excellence for the high salaries. During the Zuma era of (Matshela) Koko and (Brian) Molefe, there were a whole lot of wrong people put into positions at Eskom and an immensely high turnover.
“The bottom line was that there was a culture of complacency and a lot of problems at senior management level. Now it’s about demanding levels of excellence and high performance. They have to perform and there are no excuses,” said Yelland. “The leadership have to change the entire culture of an organisation of 44 000 people.
“The plants are old and damaged and the current maintenance can only stabilise the system. We need new power plants and new sources of power such as solar and wind. It’s not going to happen overnight but the suspension of the power station managers is sending a very strong signal internally at Eskom and to the public.”
Economist Mike Schussler agreed. “Eskom needed to hold some people accountable, especially people who have been there a while.”
While Eskom gave the grim warning this week that load shedding was likely to continue until 2022, Schussler said: “There has been a lot of economic damage done during lockdown and with load shedding on top of that, it’s going to take much longer than two years for the economy to recover. Every day of load shedding pushes back a full economic recovery by three days, so this week alone has done three weeks of damage to the economy.”
Lockdown regulations combined with the rolling blackouts is having a major impact on the economy. “We still have a curfew and when we don’t, there’s load shedding. How are businesses supposed to operate? This economy is in such a deep hole and we won’t get out of it without real reforms, and not just rhetoric,” he said.
Energy analyst Ted Blom was not encouraged by the suspensions, emphasising that taking responsibility for load shedding “started at the top”.
He accused Eskom of misleading the public and implementing stage 6 on Wednesday and Thursday nights, dropping more than 5 000MW on both nights. Any rolling blackouts exceeding 5 000MW was regarded as stage 6.
“Eskom has been deceiving the public and have misrepresented the level of load shedding. I have challenged them publicly on this. The quality of maintenance is pathetic and there will be continuous load shedding for the next five years at least,” said Blom on Friday.
Rolling blackouts are expected to continue throughout the weekend under stage 2, with Eskom saying yesterday that the “system remains unreliable and vulnerable”.