Eskom’s problems even worse than they look

New data has laid bare the dismal state of Eskom’s coal-fired power station fleet and raised questions over how effective its plant maintenance programme is, The Sunday Times reported.

The data tracked the performance of Eskom’s generating units between August 2020 and October 2021 at fourteen of its fifteen coal-fired power stations.

Only the Komati Power Station, which has one generating unit that did not require maintenance during the period, was excluded from the dataset.

The statistics showed that half of the units at the 14 power stations broke down again within nine months of being repaired.

Among the worst-performing units following maintenance work were the following:

  • Hendrina Unit 7 — 89% unavailable within the first nine months after repairs in February 2020.
  • Kusile Unit 1 — 68% unavailable within the first nine months after repairs in September 2021.
  • Two Tutuka units — average 57.4% unavailability following repairs in November 2020 and March 2021.

Eskom spokesperson Sikonathi Mantshantsha told The Sunday Times the declining performance was to be expected due to the age of the power stations.

Excluding Kusile and Medupi, which themselves have design defects resulting in lower reliability, Eskom’s coal fleet has an average age of 41 years.

“If you look at the data, our units progressively become worse over time, though sometimes we are able to halt this decline, but this is to be expected with plants of this age.”

Mantshanthsa said the breakdowns were so frequent it was not possible to conduct proper maintenance.

But energy economist Lungile Mashele said the performance was due to Eskom’s maintenance approach being “incorrect”.

“There’s been a reluctance to do reliability maintenance and a preference for the procurement of new capacity, mostly renewable energy,” Mashele said.

“What happens with Eskom is that if something breaks down, they just repair that with a target of bringing that station back online.”

Eskom needs capacity

Eskom contends that to perform the required reliability maintenance, it needs government to procure additional generating capacity so it can take plant units offline without placing extra pressure on the grid.

Executives at the state-owned power utility have said Eskom needs another 4,000MW to 6,000MW to get its maintenance programme back on track.

Eskom’s call for additional generating capacity goes back several years, but the government has not added a single megawatt of additional generation through new procurement programmes.

South Africa’s emergency power procurement programme is far behind schedule, and the maximum potential capacity it could deliver — around 2,000MW — is well short of what Eskom requires.

The utility is also in a severe financial predicament, with less money to spend on maintenance than it previously had.

Data from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research showed that Eskom has already shed around 90% of the electricity it cut during the entire 2021 within the first six months of 2022.

Eskom cut 2,276GWh between 1 January and 30 June 2022, compared to the 2,521GWh it shed in 2021 —which had been South Africa’s worst year of load-shedding on record.

The figure is already worse than the total amount of load-shedding implemented in 2020.

Eskom is not expecting to stop load-shedding within the next week or two, even if the ongoing unprotected strike were to end immediately.

The outlook for the rest of the year remains bleak, with Eskom’s previous forecast showing at least 191 days of load-shedding during the summer months, half of which fall in 2022.

Taking these factors into account, the utility appears on course to pass 2021’s load-shedding record long before the end of the year.

The graph below from Bloomberg compares the amount of energy shed from South Africa’s grid through load-shedding from 2018 to 2022.

Now read: Striking Eskom workers are paid far too much — Economist

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Eskom’s problems even worse than they look