Fixing Eskom’s failing coal power stations

Eskom finds itself at the forefront of a daunting challenge: how to arrest the constant load shedding hampering the nation’s progress, economic growth and sustainability.

This is an all-encompassing and persistent challenge that requires significant investment, exceptional leadership, a purpose-driven, goal-oriented implementation plan, and ultimately, a shift from coal generated power to more sustainable forms of electricity.

What is clear though, is that this shift is not going to be immediate, and that South Africa will need to extract every available kilowatt of electricity from existing sources until we are ready to fully embrace a low-carbon future.

In order to do that, we need power stations that deliver. In February this year, National Treasury announced that it had appointed the German VGBE Energy Consortium to assess and investigate the operations of Eskom’s coal fleet.

This assessment, expected to be completed by the end of July 2023, will consider putting in place a concession model which could see Eskom’s original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) brought in to turn around and improve the energy availability factor (EAF) of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants.

Critical to this are the major power generation OEMs in South Africa, all of whom are large global organisations with strong local operations that are Level 1 BBBEE contributors, deeply embedded into South African industry for many decades.

It is these OEMs who were and are responsible for the design and construction of Eskom’s boilers, turbines, generators, control and instrumentation systems and other plant.

But it seems that, over the years, Eskom has moved away from using OEMs for its boilerserve and turbine maintenance requirements, citing costs, as well as the need to support local small and medium-sized businesses.

What is also clear is that this approach has, in part, contributed to the current crisis.

One of the compelling advantages of OEMs lies in their ability to work on a risk and reward basis, based on the institution of long-term contracts. In an era of fiscal constraints, this arrangement offers Eskom a practical way to achieve efficiency gains without incurring excessive costs upfront.

By aligning their objectives with Eskom’s success, OEMs are motivated to deliver tangible results promptly.

This approach fosters accountability and incentivises and rewards continuous improvement. Moreover, it mitigates the risk of investing in unproven technologies or strategies, as OEMs bear a significant portion of the responsibility and risk.

Recently, on 13 July 2023, EE Business Intelligence hosted an industry-wide webinar to discuss the role and purpose of OEMs in helping South Africa extract optimum output from its power plants.

Thomas Conradie, Eskom’s Head of Generation, and Silas Zimu, an advisor to the Minister of Electricity, both keynote speakers at the webinar, recognised the benefits of developing closer, long-term working relationships with OEMs.

They agreed that while Eskom and its team need to remain at the heart of finding solutions, OEMs bring a wealth of global and local skills to the table precisely because they designed and built Eskom’s plants.

This makes them invaluable allies in resolving South Africa’s electricity crisis and transferring skills, not only to Eskom directly, but also to smaller companies that can be part of the solution.

These specialist OEMs have a proven track record of working with diverse power systems all over the world.

Their exposure to a myriad of challenges equips them with a broad perspective and innovative problem-solving approaches.

By blending global expertise with local insights, OEMs can tailor their solutions to Eskom’s specific needs, thus optimising outcomes on South Africa’s commitment to a load shedding-free future.

South Africa finds itself at a crucial juncture where every technical and credible skill is essential for surmounting the electricity crisis. OEMs not only possess the expertise to rectify immediate challenges, but also hold the key to long-term sustainable solutions.

Their involvement can revitalise Eskom’s infrastructure, introducing modern technologies and processes that enhance operational efficiency and reliability. By embracing the technical prowess of OEMs, South Africa paves the way for a brighter future, where a stable and robust electricity supply becomes a catalyst for progress across all sectors.

The urgency to address South Africa’s electricity crisis calls for bold measures and strategic partnerships. Eskom’s collaboration with OEMs offers an invaluable opportunity to tap into a global pool of skills, knowledge, and experience.

With a risk and reward approach, OEMs are aligned with Eskom’s success, ensuring the efficient allocation of resources. South Africa must embrace these OEMs, leveraging their technical expertise and experience to build a reliable and resilient electricity system capable of fuelling the nation’s development for years to come.

Eskom’s infrastructure is currently the backbone of South Africa’s electricity supply, and its efficient functioning is indispensable for economic growth and societal well-being. The electricity crisis dictates that every single capable, experienced and knowledgeable technical skill needs to be deployed.

Yet, there are OEMs with the required capabilities, track record and technical expertise that are sitting idle, and not being put to use.

Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering is one such example, where a deeply capable, local, top-tier OEM is currently excluded from maintaining Eskom’s boilers due to litigation related to the simple matter of the omission of a welding certificate in a tender submission.

While the High Court has already found Eskom’s actions to be unlawful in excluding Babcock on this basis, Eskom is doubling down and appealing this High Court decision. This is a company that has consistently delivered the highest ratings in EAF for the boilers that they have maintained for Eskom for over 100 years.

It is simply inconceivable that this level of expertise is not at the table. This needs to be remedied quickly.


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Now read: Eskom COO reveals why he really left

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Fixing Eskom’s failing coal power stations