Eskom drops the ball

Eskom “dropped the ball” last week when unplanned outages surged to over 17,000MW, according to Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, South Africa’s electricity minister.

During a briefing to update the public on the Energy Action Plan on Sunday, 5 November 2023, Ramokgopa described the inconsistency in generation performance as “unacceptable”.

“We have done exceptionally well over a period of three months [but] I think the ball has been dropped here,” said Ramokgopa.

“As a result of these failures, and this is something that is receiving attention, we’ve gone back to about 17,000MW [of breakdowns], and this is totally unacceptable, I must say.”

He said these oscillations in unplanned outages damage the public’s, businesses’, and potential investor’s confidence in government’s ability to end load-shedding.

“For us to be able to build confidence. For us to be able to build credibility in our ability to resolve this crisis, it is important we are consistent in relation to our performance,” the minister said.

“We can’t have these oscillations where you have a UCLF [Unplanned Capacity Loss Factor] of 13,000MW, we reach periods of 12,000MW, and then suddenly you go to 17,000MW.”

“I don’t think that we are going to give confidence, most importantly to the South African public, but also to commerce and business and potential investors who want to invest their money into the South African economy,” he added.

Several units broke down last week, resulting in Eskom implementing an alternating stage 2 and 3 load-shedding schedule.

“Over the past 24 hours, a generating unit each at Camden, Majuba and Medupi power stations, as well as two generating units at Arnot Power Station, were taken offline for repairs,” the power utility said in a statement on Friday, 3 November 2023.

At the time, unavailable generation capacity due to unit breakdowns amounted to 17,507MW.

Ramokgopa said boiler tube leaks caused last week’s breakdowns, and several of them are expected to return to service by Wednesday, 8 November 2023.

In an interview with eNCA, University of Johannesburg physics professor Hartmut Winkler said the fact that Eskom has been able to keep load-shedding at lower stages for the past two to three months is a positive sign.

“One needs to take a much longer-term view at what’s happening. The fact that we’ve gone two or three months with less load-shedding than I think most people expected is a very positive sign,” said Winkler.

However, he warned that the age of Eskom’s coal generation fleet means that generation units could break down at any moment.

“I think there was an element of luck as well. We just don’t know. These are old power stations. They’ve been driven very hard. They could break down almost at any time,” he said.

“Just like in gambling, somebody might have a good run where they’ll win three or four times in a row. I think we had a bit of that, and we’re probably doing the opposite again.”

“I think it’s all going to average out, but what we’re seeing this week isn’t that bad,” Winkler added.

Matrics to prep for exams in the dark

During Sunday’s media briefing, Ramokgopa also said Eskom can’t exempt all schools from load-shedding, which will mean that some students will have to tackle study sessions by candlelight.

“At the principal level, it’s very difficult to exempt all schools, because if you come to think of it, if you were to map the geographic location of the schools, you’ll find that the higher densities of schools are located in areas of significant load,” he said.

“They share some of the distribution infrastructure with some of the major energy-intensive users.”

“Unfortunately, it is not possible, so I really don’t want to stand here and create an impression that it’s going to be possible,” added Ramokgopa.

The minister didn’t say whether Eskom will exempt schools from load-shedding during writing sessions, which commenced on Monday, 30 October 2023.

Now read: South Africa’s first mini nuclear reactor planned for the Western Cape

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Eskom drops the ball