The frightening reality about Eskom

The speed at which South Africa’s electricity grid came close to breaking point on Friday illustrates how razor-thin Eskom’s reserve margin is. Technically speaking, at times it’s running a negative reserve margin. This is an emergency.

Last Monday, Eskom spokesperson Andrew Etzinger was “cautiously optimistic” that there would be no load shedding during the week “or in the near future”.

That prognosis changed by Thursday when we were “urged” to “prepare” for load shedding later on in the week or over the weekend.

By Thursday afternoon, we were into Stage 2 load shedding (2 000MW) for the evening peak. We started Stage 2 at 11am on Friday, and within an hour, Eskom was knee-deep in a crisis. For the next ten hours, Eskom was at Stage 3 (4 000MW).

The emergency continued into Saturday, with Stage 3 load shedding running from 6am on to 10pm (including, significantly, industrial customers).

Etzinger then started referencing the “recent” blackouts in “California, parts of Europe, India”, and warned (pre-empted?) that if the grid were to collapse in South Africa, it would take weeks to restart.

Longer, without warning

What’s most revealing about the timelines through last week is how quickly Eskom went from a situation that was manageable (and that it had predicted) to an all-out emergency.

One can only imagine the chaos between 11am and noon on Friday. How do you lose 2 000MW of generating capacity in an hour?

The load shedding time-blocks are creeping longer, faster. Stage 3 load shedding ran until 10pm on Friday. This is a Friday night in December, where demand is not anywhere near peak. Stage 3 ran from 6am to 10pm on Saturday. This is completely unprecedented!

Eskom also seemed to have very quietly rewritten the rules. Stage 3 load shedding used to allow for 3 000MW of “load to be shed”. Now, that number is suddenly 4 000MW.


In its (quietly published) System Status Bulletin 302 from Thursday, Eskom stated that it had “28 400 MW (including open cycle gas turbines)” capacity available on that day, with peak demand “forecast at 30 181 MW”.

Eskom capacity
Eskom capacity

Given that its open cycle gas turbines are capable of providing just more than 2 000 MW (1 332MW peak at Ankerlig, 740MW peak at Gourikwa), and that it’s using its two pump storage schemes (Drakensburg and Palmiet) overtime to generate as much as 1 400MW, Eskom’s base load power stations are currently generating less than 25 000 MW.

Remove the notoriously unreliable 1 500MW of imports from Cahora Bassa (there are maintenance windows practically every weekend which exacerbate the situation, along with continual issues on the transmission lines from Mozambique) and you get a figure of closer to 23 500MW. That’s 55% of its total capacity online.

Add back the Cahora Bassa supply (which is base load power), and you get to 60%. In other words, 40% of Eskom’s total generating capacity is offline (or, in the case of the gas turbines, perpetually close to running out of diesel).

On Thursday, Eskom put its current planned maintenance at 5 295 MW, with unplanned outages of 8 377MW. That unplanned figure is frightening, especially when you compare it with Medupi’s total generating capacity of 4 800MW (at current timelines, estimated to be completely online by the end of 2018).

No more room to move

By its own published numbers, Eskom has 42 072 MW of generating capacity. The truth is that number hasn’t grown significantly since 2008/2009 (when its capacity was 40 503 MW). It’s increased by 4% (net) … but how, if it added 6 137 MW of capacity since 2005?

Electricity demand in SA is at a 7y low. But the decline in generation plant performance is faster than the decline in electricity demand – Chris Yelland

The first problem is that the rapid decline in plant performance has offset two-thirds of this additional capacity. It’s been adding generation capacity to stand still. The second problem is it’s run out of quick-fixes.

This is the first year in nine that Eskom hasn’t added a single megawatt to generating capacity. We’ve got no option but to wait for the “imminent” synchronisation of the first unit at Medupi.

Best case, that’ll happen by June next year. The delivery of each Kusile unit would be approximately 12 months after the corresponding ones at Medupi.

Eskom power
Eskom power

No wonder experts on Moneyweb on Friday were recommending that South Africans buy a generator.

Crisis management

Thankfully, after a few weekends of trying, municipalities have got their load shedding schedules mostly accurate. In case you were wondering, Joburg City Power seems to shed load by having a fleet of contractors drive around neighbourhoods, popping open distribution boxes to switch them off (and then back on again).

Every now and then there’s chaos, however. Like Friday, where the severity of the situation caught everyone offguard.

Ways to stay positive in Jozi during #loadshedding:

1. Avoid driving anywhere.
2. Avoid staying at home.
3. Avoid going out.


Mike Stopforth

At least, with some predictability, the inconvenience over (especially) weekends is manageable. With the imminent shutdown of heavy industry for a month in a week’s time, Eskom will have some reprieve.

It will probably mean that Etzinger, the calm and completely unflappable “voice” (/face) of the utility, will be able to take some sort of break. That doesn’t mean he’s as transparent as he was in 2008. Eskom has become decidedly (deliberately?) more opaque this time round.

There’s near-zero insight into which power stations are offline. Instead, we’re simply told of the “loss of additional generation” or that “certain units have tripped”.

Brian Dames, who – let’s not forget – kept the lights on for his entire tenure as chief executive of Eskom must be relieved he’s no longer in charge.

Pretty sure Brian Dames is glad he’s no longer in charge of this Eskom mess – Hilton Tarrant

Then again, in large corporations, chief executives are largely oblivious to day-to-day operations. Their job is to look six, 12, 18, 24 months ahead. Dames would’ve surely had a view a year ago of what was likely to happen in two or three or four quarters’ time. He might not have known for sure, but perhaps he had the slightest of inklings.

He resigned on December 5 2013. That should tell you all you need to know.

Since the Majuba silo disaster (or in Eskom parlance, “crack”), we’ve had more load shedding than we’ve had since 2008. In winter, Eskom was forced to shed load on March 6 and June 11, 12 and 17. That’s before this latest nightmare which, based on the past week, is only getting worse.

Can it get worse?

What happens after Stage 3? What happens when there’s a shortfall of more than 4 000MW?

There are murmurs that ‘Stage 3B’ (which we did or didn’t reach on Friday, depending on who you believe) is effectively Stage 4. Monday afternoon’s media briefing from Eskom chief executive Tshediso Matona will go one of two ways: either things are going to get better from here, or they’re not.

And our indefatigable Minister of Energy, Tina Joemat Pettersson? Last we heard, she’d be running “nuclear vendor parade workshops” in the Drakensburg (and no, she wasn’t in China with President Jacob Zuma at the end of last week). She literally hasn’t been seen for weeks.

Minister of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown made her last public comments on Eskom at the utility’s financial results presentation on November 25. One wonders if either of them will be seated next to Matona at Megawatt Park on Monday.

Source: Moneyweb

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The frightening reality about Eskom