Former Eskom chief André de Ruyter said in his newly-released book that the more he scrutinized Eskom’s inner workings, the more he felt like it was broken beyond repair.
He made the strongly-worded statement in his typical De Ruyter-esque way without saying it directly, in a chapter of the book titled “We are f***ed. Maybe.”
De Ruyter opens the chapter with an anecdote about how, at 16 years old, he and a friend hitch-hiked down to Durban and caught a lift with a kindly Zulu man in his Austin Apache.
“While heading to Pietermaritzburg, we suddenly heard an unearthly grinding noise from under the bonnet, followed by complete silence,” the former Eskom CEO wrote.
He said it was clear that the engine had seized.
The man brought his vehicle to a halt, looked over at us and, in an even voice, said, ‘I think maybe the engine is f***ed.’
De Ruyter said the more he “peeked under the Eskom hood,” the more he started to feel like the generous old man who had given them a lift all those years ago.
He mentioned several specific events at Eskom that had led him to this conclusion:
- The explosion of Medupi Unit 4 on 8 August 2021
- Kusile nearly running out of coal in March 2022
- A culture of neglect — from issues he and former chief operating officer Jan Oberholzer found during inspections, specifically mentioning the Merensky substation in Mpumalanga and the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme
- Inability to perform the necessary planned maintenance to extend the life of coal-fired power stations
For the first time, De Ruyter revealed additional details about the explosion at Medupi.
He said when he quizzed the station management about what went wrong, he found an attitude of complacency at best or incompetence at worst.
The procedure that caused the explosion — using hydrogen to find an external leak — was usually performed at the power station once per year and required two shifts to execute.
De Ruyter said he found there was no Eskom standard operating procedure document. Technicians had been “winging it” based on instructions from the manufacturer, he said.
There was also no procedure in place for the first shift to communicate precisely what had been done and what still needed doing with the second shift.
MyBroadband asked Eskom for comment on whether it agreed with the former CEO’s recollection of events. The utility acknowledged our query and said it would provide feedback as soon as possible.
This article will be updated with Eskom’s comment when we receive it.
Regarding the Kusile coal shortage in March 2022, De Ruyter related a story of how he spotted in a report that the flagship power station only had twelve days of reserves left.
When he demanded an explanation from the head of generation at the time, De Ruyter said he was told a computer algorithm determines how much coal to buy based on historical usage.
However, the program wasn’t updated to take into account that more of Kusile’s generating units were coming online and therefore needed more coal.
De Ruyter didn’t name the executive in his book, but in March 2022, Eskom’s head of generation was Phillip Dukashe.
As testimony of the culture of neglect at the company, De Ruyter related stories of how they found the Merensky substation overgrown, with scrap iron strewn everywhere.
They also visited the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme, where he said tools were lying loose at the bottom of cabinets and the toolboxes were empty.
The concerning aspect of many of the problems I noticed was the implication behind them.
How many layers of management have to fail before the group chief executive notices that a workshop is dirty, that a toolbox is empty or that a power plant is running out of coal?
It is simply not sustainable for someone in such a senior management position to micromanage every boiler room, every workshop, every control room.
At some point, the power station managers and middle managers have to step up to the plate.
De Ruyter said that compounding the problem is the structural and systemic issues Eskom faces.
“Even with perfect management, they would be close to insurmountable,” he said.
According to De Ruyter, maintenance on Eskom’s ageing coal-fired generation fleet had been deferred for so long, they are like an old, barely-running car that would cost more to fix than to replace.
Of course, the problem with De Ruyter’s analogy is that cars are made on an assembly line, and buying a new or second-hand one is trivial.
Building new power stations takes years.
However, De Ruyter explains that just fixing the run-down cooling systems at the Tutuka, Kriel, and Matla power stations would take months of downtime.
“To fix the cooling system or to perform proper maintenance, you have to commit to an outage of at least 100 days,” he wrote.
“But you cannot take out all the units simultaneously for 100 days, because you don’t have enough spare capacity in the system.”
The maintenance outages must now be planned over multiple years, while Eskom’s power plant reliability remains in a death spiral.
“Neglect that has built up over years cannot be fixed in a year or two.”
De Ruyter also explained at some length why he believes Eskom should be operating with a planned capability loss factor (PCLF, i.e. planned maintenance) of at least 18%.
Various boards, ministers, CEOs, and even regulator Nersa blocked the implementation of higher PCLFs over the years to avoid load-shedding, even baulking at 10%.
These chickens are now coming home to roost.
He named several individuals who shied away or kicked against higher maintenance levels, including Nersa’s permanent member for electricity at the time (and now chairman), Thembani Bukula, and former Eskom CEO Brian Dames.
Regardless of the historical reasons for the lack of maintenance, De Ruyter said that even if the will and spare capacity were found to repair Eskom’s fleet tomorrow, it couldn’t.
“We need time, we need money, we need people. And we don’t have any of those luxuries,” he wrote.
It is for this reason De Ruyter believed the fastest, cheapest, and most practical solution was to bring large amounts of renewable energy online to give Eskom the generation buffer it so desperately needs.
“Just about every switch that could ruin Eskom has been thrown,” De Ruyter said.
“The fact that the lights are on at all is [a] testament to the heroic efforts of a few souls battling away bravely in our power stations, on our transmission lines, in our control rooms and in our distribution business.”
In his dedication at the front of the book, De Ruyter honoured these people:
This book is dedicated to all the honest,
hardworking men and women of Eskom,
for doing an outstanding job under trying circumstances.
It has been an honour working with you.