Eskom’s worst year yet

This past year has not been an easy one for Eskom.

South Africa’s state-owned power utility was plagued by issues such as numerous plant breakdowns and resource theft, causing some of the worst rotational power cuts the country has seen.

Eskom’s leadership says they have been working to weed out corruption at the power utility and get its power generation fleet to a state where it can consistently provide power to the grid.

From accusations about interference by President Cyril Ramaphosa to revelations of syndicates and sabotage — the outcome was the worst year of load-shedding on record.

Former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe, who is the subject of civil and criminal complaints, implicated President Cyril Ramaphosa in the irregular contracts at Eskom during his tenure.

According to Molefe, Ramaphosa had sold his shares in Glencore, but the deal had not gone through when Molefe was appointed as CEO of Eskom.

“At the time when I got to Eskom, and he was Deputy President and chairman of the war room, the deal had not gone through,” Molefe said.

“It was awaiting Competition Commission approval. So I suspect there may have been conflicts.”

He added that Ramaphosa’s “war room” was not focused on solving load-shedding.

“I quickly came to realise that the war room was not about load-shedding and turning Eskom around,” Molefe said.

“Something else was happening. Eskom senior managers were being distracted from fighting load-shedding by being made to attend endless meetings at which they were expected to give unending and meaningless reports.”

Molefe alleged that during his stint as chairman of the war room, Ramaphosa had put pressure on the board to renegotiate a deal with Glencore.

Ramaphosa denied the accusations in January 2021.

André de Ruyter, Eskom CEO

The state-owned power utility was the victim of several different forms of theft throughout 2021 — including illegal connections, theft of resources by Eskom employees, and corrupt tenders.

Eskom reported a loss of R4.95 billion in May 2021, resulting from 3,513GWh stolen through illegal connections to the grid.

The level of electricity theft through illegal connections equated to 3% of the power utility’s total supplied energy.

When it comes to corrupt tenders, Eskom CEO André de Ruyter waged war against wasteful spending.

Having uncovered that Eskom had paid R80,000 for knee guards worth R300 a pair and R200,000 for a mop worth R39.99, De Ruyter has been working to weed out corruption within the state-owned enterprise.

Cable theft added to Eskom’s woes this year, with some areas reporting days-long power outages as a result.

Through Eskom’s investigations, several employees were arrested this year relating to the theft of copper cables worth R540,000 and the disappearance of spare parts valued in the hundreds of millions at Tutuka power station.

Tutuka power station

The high levels of load-shedding experienced throughout 2021 was primarily due to unplanned breakdowns of power-generation units at Eskom’s power stations.

The power utility has experienced breakdowns at several power stations throughout the year, including Kendall, Matimba, and Tutuka, to name a few.

Energy experts attribute these breakdowns to insufficient maintenance conducted on power generation units over the years, with more than 20,000MW being taken offline in a single day.

The figure of over 20,000MW being removed from the grid was due to a combination of 14,957MW caused by unplanned breakdowns and 5,301MW resulting from planned maintenance.

However, according to energy expert Tshepo Kgadima, a significant factor leading to the breakdown of generation units is that Eskom is burning coal at incorrect temperatures causing boiler tube leaks.

Eskom said last year that it had embarked on an extensive maintenance programme that would start bearing fruit in the third quarter of 2021 — causing a reduction in load-shedding.

However, the ailing power utility was unable to meet this goal and instead had to implement the most load-shedding ever recorded in a year.

Kusile power station

Eskom’s outlook for 2022 and beyond is a mixed bag.

On the positive side, new power generation units have been added to the grid.

However, the utility has also warned that South Africa could face constant stage-8 load-shedding if its application for pollution limit exemptions were not granted.

National Air Quality Officer Thuli Khumalo said that it would be illegal to issue alternative limits for power stations located in priority areas where there was non-compliance with Particulate Matter standards.

“If implemented, the decision will result in an immediate shutting down of 16,000MW of installed coal-fired capacity,” Eskom said in response to her refusal.

“This would have a significant negative impact on the economy and employment, particularly in Mpumalanga and Lephalale, and delay the country’s plans for a just energy transition toward a cleaner electricity supply.”

Despite this, Eskom announced that it had synchronised a fourth power generation unit to the grid at its Kusile coal-fired plant.

According to the power utility, it would contribute an additional 800MW of capacity to the grid.

The environmental department’s refusal to exempt Eskom from pollution limits could also force it to increase electricity pricing by 30%, the power utility warned.

This is in addition to a proposed 20.5% electricity tariff increase from Eskom that the National Energy Regulator of South Africa must consider.

Now read: Good news for load-shedding — Kusile unit added to the grid

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Eskom’s worst year yet