Dark days ahead for South Africa

Energy Expert Chris Yelland has warned that load-shedding is going to last a long time, which will seriously hurt the South African economy.

Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter recently said that instead of continuing to defer maintenance, Eskom is now actively working on maintaining its power stations.

Conducting scheduled maintenance on these generation units will, unfortunately, result in more load-shedding going forward.

Speaking to CNBC Africa, Yelland said De Ruyter is preparing the country for a long period of load-shedding which is set to follow.

He explained that Eskom needs to switch off generators for maintenance and that the power utility does not have extra generators to switch on.

“We have to brace ourselves for more load-shedding which will have a very negative impact on the economy,” he said.

“We do not see load-shedding as a temporary thing. It is going to last some time, especially with the deep level of maintenance which is being planned.”

No maintenance for years

Eskom has historically neglected to maintain its coal power stations in order to maintain a high energy availability factor (EAF).

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,” NECSA Chair and retired Eskom chief nuclear officer Dave Nicholls 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.

Diminishing returns on maintenance

Yelland said while maintenance is very necessary, he does not expect the impact of this maintenance to be significant.

“I think there are going to be diminishing returns from maintenance. It is going to be costly without too big an impact,” he said.

He said if anything Eskom can hope to stabilize the energy availability factor where it is now – which is not a good place.

“To hope that the EAF is going to radically improve through maintenance is too optimistic,” he said.

New generation capacity needed urgently

What South Africa needs to stop load-shedding is low-cost renewable energy complemented by flexible generation, Yelland said.

He said flexible generation comes in two forms – gas-to-power and battery energy storage.

He added that gas-to-power is quick to build and comes at a relatively low capital cost, which is important as Eskom does not have a lot of money to spend.

The combination of gas-to-power and variable renewable energy provides reliable, stable, and dispatchable energy.

Yelland said this is the future of energy and that South Africa does not need to build more coal-powered plants to solve the country’s electricity crisis.

“The new world of flexible power generation is turning the old concept of increasing base-load on its head,” he said.

“A generation plant which takes a long time to build and which is inflexible in its operation is susceptible to time and cost overruns.”

“We need short construction time, flexible generation, and lots of small plants rather than big plants to mitigate the risk associated with putting all your eggs in one basket.”

Now read: South Africans must expect more load-shedding – Eskom CEO

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Dark days ahead for South Africa