Eskom expects loadshedding to stop at weekend, but long-term maintenance fix elusive

Jabu Mabuza
Jabu Mabuza, Eskom chairman & interim CEO

ESKOM will scale down loadshedding to stage 1 from 9am to 3pm on Friday (October 18) and expects there will be no further loadshedding after the weekend, chairman and acting CEO Jabu Mabuza said on Thursday.

The utility is making progress on fixing the unplanned breakdowns that necessitated loadshedding, and over the weekend it will be able to replenish its emergency reserves, he said.

He was speaking after two days of stage 2 loadshedding in South Africa, which requires Eskom to shed 2,000 megawatts (MW) of demand. Loadshedding costs the economy billions in lost revenue and severely damages business and consumer confidence.

Mabuza apologised to the country (including matriculants, who are currently studying) for the necessity of cutting power. He said the decision to cut back power supply was not taken lightly. Eskom’s goal was to minimise the quantity of power shed and to do so for the least possible time.

Commentators have criticised the fact that Eskom’s nine-point plan to address its backlog in coal supply and maintenance, which it put in place in December, has not delivered a more stable system. Mabuza said the nine-point plan allowed Eskom to get through winter without loadshedding, but it had previously warned that if it could not hold unplanned outages below 9,500MW in summer, the risks of loadshedding would increase.

Eskom has about 47,000MW of capacity, which is a mix of different technologies (not all baseload) and includes a large proportion of old coal-fired power stations that were not well maintained in the past, resulting in abnormally high breakdowns. Current peak demand is about 30,000MW.

Eskom’s COO, Jan Oberholzer, said there is a schedule for planned maintenance, and the utility is already ahead of that schedule.

Over the past week, Eskom’s systems detected six boiler tube leaks (two at Majuba and the rest at other power stations), which required shutting down those units. This was followed by a breakdown in the seven-kilometre conveyor belt that feeds Medupi power station with coal, resulting in a loss of 1,200MW of generating capacity.

These events, together with some weather-related inefficiencies, brought the total loss of power in unplanned breakdowns to almost 11,000MW.

Although pumped storage stations and diesel-fired open-cycle gas turbines have been used to supplement power, pumped storage dams need to be fully replenished after three days and the utility has also had to source emergency diesel from the oil companies.

However, the utility’s cost of diesel in the current financial year has been relatively low. It has spent just over R500m on diesel in the past six and a half months, against R6bn spent in the 2018/19 financial year.

Mabuza said coal is being fed manually to Medupi, but the conveyor belt should be repaired by the middle of next week. Diesel supplies are being built up and the pumped storage dams will be replenished over the weekend. Some of the units taken offline have been restored to service.

The long-term solution for Eskom would be to expedite maintenance or add additional capacity, but it does not have the funds for either, he said. It can only take short-term steps.

The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) which has been presented to Cabinet this week and is due to be made public by the minister of minerals and energy on Friday, will provide longer-term solutions for South Africa’s energy mix, adding other sources of generation to boost power capacity.

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