Eskom’s current situation can be attributed not only to the lack of new power stations being built, but also to the pervasive lack of maintenance on existing infrastructure.
This is according to NECSA Chair and retired Eskom chief nuclear officer Dave Nicholls, who was speaking at a Free Market Foundation event in Johannesburg.
Nicholls said that in the mid-1990s, Eskom projected that it would run out of power in 2007. However, at the time the power utility had an excess generation capacity of 30-40%.
“At this point, engineers at Eskom were saying we must starting building now to avert the crisis,” Nicholls said.
This plan to build additional power stations was never actioned, however, and when 2008 arrived, Eskom was presented with a crisis due to the lack of maintenance on its existing power stations.
In order to maintain a high energy availability factor (EAF), Eskom neglected to maintain its coal power stations properly, Nicholls said.
The energy availability factor shows the percentage of Eskom’s generation capacity which is available, taking into account planned maintenance and unplanned breakdowns.
“We ran a coal fleet like a series of kombi taxis, but we reached a high EAF,” he said.
The power utility’s EAF dropped from above 90% in the mid-1990s to below 65% in 2019. This decline was attributed mostly to a lack of maintenance and the effect of breakdowns at ageing power stations.
This is demonstrated clearly by looking at the frequency of energy generation orders at Eskom.
Emergency generation orders are sent out when the grid is in danger of being overloaded. These orders require power plants to continue functioning no matter what to prevent a power generation crisis.
Nicholls said that in the mid-1990s, these were sent out on a few days every year, and it was a major issue when this occurred.
This increased in frequency as the lack of maintenance on existing power stations began to take its toll, however.
“By the time we reached 2007, we had an emergency generation order every working day,” he said.
Impact on economy
Nicholls said that Eskom’s lack of generation capacity has seriously stunted South Africa’s most important economic sectors – manufacturing and mining.
“In 2006, industry was told that Eskom could not supply the power they wanted,” he said. “If you have four shafts on your gold mine and you don’t have the power to run them, you don’t sink another shaft.”
He said that by this point, Eskom was telling companies that it would not be able to supply them with power if they built new factories and other large installations.
“From 2007 onwards, supply determined consumption. Anybody who uses the word demand for power past 2007 is fooling themselves.”
This problem continued to get worse, with Exarro Resources CEO Mxolisi Mgojo recently labelling the current state of Eskom the “death knell” of the mining industry.
“The current state of Eskom is going to be the one thing that is going to be the death knell of this industry,” Mgojo said.
“Without fixing Eskom we don’t have a mining industry. It is as dire as that.”