Please load shed daily until May, Eskom

This is not attention-grabbing sensationalism. The numbers I detailed on Tuesday tell the unavoidable truth. Plus, Eskom chief executive Tshediso Matona had practically prepared us for three months of load shedding back in January.

And the word from inside Eskom (at the highest level) is that things are worse than they seem from the outside.

But enough fear-mongering.

Somehow, though, Eskom is managing to keep things going. It’s not telling anyone exactly how, but it’s relatively easy to infer from its System Status Bulletins. For the first half of last week, it said “Peak demand was reduced down” (sic).

Available capacity seems stuck at somewhere between 29 000MW and 30 000MW, “considering primary energy constraints”, versus the 30 000MW to 32 000MW it has managed to generate for most of January. That’s a different way of saying there’s no more money to fund the expensive burning of diesel at its peaking stations Ankerlig and Gourikwa (around 2 000MW).

If you look at it pragmatically, the only way out of the mess Eskom finds itself in is for it to find the space to do proper, desperately-needed maintenance starting today. (No amount of praying is going to help us.)

This is how.

  1. Begin stage 2 load shedding today. Yes, protest all you like, but Eskom’s already given us the prognosis! It published a (now widely-circulated) calendar at two briefings in January. But somehow the lights are staying on. Even with a Koeberg unit (900MW) tripping ahead of the plan to take it offline for maintenance next Monday, Eskom is somehow still coping. This is completely unsustainable. A carefully-managed three to four month window of stage 2 load shedding will give Eskom a gap of 2 000MW to actually do proper maintenance. Resist the temptation to rush units back online. On its own, 2 000MW is not enough though.
  2. Find the (tens of) billions needed to run the diesel peaking plants. This is the easiest problem to solve (despite it becoming increasingly tougher for government to find extra cash). Money for diesel means an additional 2 000MW of headroom, meaning Eskom can take more of its units offline to do the required maintenance.
  3. Continue “reducing down” (sic) demand. Cut a percentage of supply to energy-intensive users. Eskom managed to do this last week, with demand peaking at ±28 600MW on Monday and Tuesday and 29 717MW on Wednesday. There’s at least 1 000MW of oxygen there.

On a portion of its maintenance backlog shared in its January presentation, there is one item from 2011 (a two-week job at Hendrina 2)… 2011!

It’s also got two outstanding issues from 2012 (60 days at Majuba 3 and a week at Tutuka 6), and three issues from 2013 (two at Kendal 3 and one at Komati 3).

Obviously, this backlog has probably changed since it was published a fortnight ago, but the compounding problems are reaching the point where the maintenance simply has to be done. The details on Unit 3 at Kendal best illustrates this. In the backlog, there are five discrete pieces of maintenance required. Two were supposed to be done in November 2013 (32 days and 43 days), while the other three were scheduled for June, July and October last year (7 days, 41 days and 24 days). It simply has to take the unit offline for two months, there’s no way around it!

Any bets on whether Kendal 3 is generating anything close to 640MW of power currently?

Back to the solution… The money should be relatively easy to find (nothing like a crisis to focus attention on a problem, plus it seems Nersa has helped Eskom find the cash), Eskom can probably continue reducing demand with the various levers it can pull. But it’s no secret that load shedding is politically unpalatable. You don’t even need to read between the lines in the City Press ‘blackout’ report to know that.

On the day of his resignation in December 2013, Brian Dames told me: “It’s a tough job, it really takes every ounce of your energy and it never ends. Really and literally it never ends.”

In hindsight, especially with some of the noises coming out of Eskom over the past two months, it’s easy to infer that Dames was subjected to a large amount of political interference while he was in charge.

Of great concern is the fact that the proverbial wagons are circling the laager. Eskom is not being as open is it has been (especially on channels like Twitter). It didn’t even bother publishing status bulletins for two public holiday dates over December/January (why didn’t it catch them up a day later like it did last year?) Never mind that its status bulletin from last Thursday was still not available on its website as of Monday.

On Monday we were told that Andrew Etzinger, the lone voice of sanity during the 2008 load shedding crisis and in the recent chaos, would no longer be “speaking for Eskom”. The “War Room” has “taken charge”. Expect more-carefully “managed” communications.

Perhaps Eskom has another plan to find the 5000MW gap it needs to get a grip on its compounding maintenance problem. There haven’t been any indications that this is the case.

The only way out from where I’m sitting is to start properly-managed, well-communicated load shedding until winter (and maybe through winter too). Eskom having a quarter of its generating capacity offline unexpectedly tells you all you need to know about how severe the crisis is.

The alternative is a cold, dark winter.

Perhaps our President will address this head-on in his State of the Nation address on Thursday. Wait, who am I kidding?

*Hilton Tarrant works at immedia. Republished with permission from Moneyweb

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Please load shed daily until May, Eskom