Eskom’s early Kusile celebration could be short-lived

Eskom’s celebration of improved performance at its troubled Kusile Power Plant this past week is premature, as the station still needs extensive retrofitting and repairs to offer anywhere near its full capacity, Rapport reports.

During electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa’s latest update on the government’s Energy Action Plan on Monday, 25 March 2024, Eskom’s group executive for generation, Bheki Nxumalo, revealed that Kusile was no longer considered a “recovery” station.

That was because the four units it currently has in commercial operation are running “exceptionally well”, with an average energy availability factor (EAF) of 90%.

However, three of these units will have to be taken offline again to switch them to an emissions system that will ensure their harmful pollutant outputs are within legal limits.

Since late 2023, units 1, 2, and 3 have been providing power to the grid while connected to temporary emission stacks, thanks to an exemption granted by the environmental department.

These were contrived as an interim measure to ensure the units could help lower load-shedding while Eskom fixes the partially collapsed flue-gas desulphurisation (FGD) duct.

A part of the FGD chimney collapsed in October 2022 due to heavy sludge build-up from an ineffective ash removal system.

Eskom’s Kusile power plant flue gas duct failed

While Eskom and Ramokgopa have repeatedly punted the return to service of the three units as a major contributor to reduced load-shedding, they have done little to acknowledge the impact of running the units with higher emissions on the health of people living around the power station.

The utility has until March 2025 to use the temporary stacks.

Even if the FGD system was restored with the necessary redesigns to prevent a reoccurrence of the sludge build-up, several other issues at the power station could prevent it from performing optimally.

A report compiled by consultants from German firm VGBE, at the request of National Treasury, estimated these could lower its potential maximum output from all six units from 4,800MW to 3,200MW.

The deficiencies include a poor ash removal system that could cause blockages down the line and the coal handling system requiring trucks to offload coal due to the lack of a conveyor belt to transport the coal.

A source at the Kusile Power Station told Rapport that this will likely only be done after the final unit at Kusile is completed, which should be sometime in 2025.

In addition, VGBE deemed Kusile’s storage areas, maintenance workshop, and chemical laboratory dysfunctional.

Eskom also told Rapport that Kusile Unit 5, which was first synchronised to the grid in December 2023 and has since been undergoing testing, is now only expected to enter full commercial operation in June 2024, a month later than planned.

The estimated date by which Unit 6 will enter commercial operation has also been moved along by two months — with the new timeline putting completion in April 2025.

The extension of Kusile’s ash removal conveyor belt is expected to be completed in two months, but the ash disposal area’s estimated completion date is only September 2025.

Best-performing unit not operated by Eskom

According to VGBE Energy, the best-performing unit of the four currently providing power to the grid — Unit 4 — is not even operated by Eskom itself but by the original equipment manufacturer.

The consultants found that Eskom’s Kusile operating department staff have not been adequately trained to use the plant’s new FGD technology.

“The staff seems to lack incident investigation skills and are not as competent as they ideally need to be at analysing root causes or developing and implementing corrective actions,” VGBE said.

They also said Eskom had delayed or deferred many of its training programmes, which resulted in a workforce with adequate skills but only slight improvement in overall performance.

“The competencies of the technical managers are at a reasonable level, but there is greater potential for improvement,” they explained.

“We repeatedly noticed that there is a high degree of theoretical knowledge. However, the complex management system makes its application very difficult.”

Energy expert Chris Yelland has suggested that more units should perhaps be operated by OEMs, at least for a time.

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Eskom’s early Kusile celebration could be short-lived