No-win situation for Eskom

 ·31 Jan 2024

Power utility Eskom appears to be under pressure to suspend load shedding – even if it should be obvious that energy isn’t available to do so.

The latest power blackout statistics compiled by independent energy analyst Pieter Jordaan shows that South Africa’s power situation continued to deteriorate in the fourth week of the year, with full power available only 16% of the time.

2024 has started off with a declining trend in power availability, with fading suspensions pointing to Eskom more frequently being unable to meet demand – despite demand being at record lows.

Jordaan said this confirms that the risk of a major crisis episode is still very much present in the system.

While load shedding is far less severe in January 2024 compared to January 2023, nothing much has changed on Eskom’s end in terms of energy availability.

According to Jordaan, drastically lower demand compared to last year has made it possible for the utility to keep its maintenance rate above 18%, which is unprecedented for this time of year.

This has given politicians room to boast about the utility’s stringent maintenance regime – even as the group struggles to meet lower levels of demand most of the time.

Another huge problem that has cropped up is that maintenance is also carrying on for longer, with Eskom admitting it isn’t always able to return these units back to service on time. In these cases, the utility has opted to spin these delays as “opportunities” to do more “preventative maintenance”.

No-win scenario

Eskom’s ambitious maintenance regime carries big risks, Jordaan said.

“Due to a lack of reserve coal-fired capacity, a few broken down units can change the outlook pretty fast,” he said.

This was seen over the past weekend when Eskom had planned to suspend load shedding, but was quickly forced to implement permanent stage 2 load shedding at short notice as capacity dropped.

Jordaan said Eskom would have been well aware of this eventuality because, by Friday, it had already run down its pumped storage reserves to 25% and had to rely on independent open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) for two days solid at a load factor of 70%.

“Eskom had skimped on its own diesel generation due to the depletion of its fuel budget – but was forced into action to try and replenish the critically low pumped storage reserves,” Jordaan said.

This means that the 55 GWh, of pumped storage via diesel generation, on Friday and Saturday at R10/kWh, caused a minimum of R7/kWh loss to Eskom – equating to R385 million, which the company may try to recoup in future tariff hikes.

Just keep spinning

What stands out in the current energy situation is that the political spin around Eskom’s performance is completely out of step with the reality on the ground.

Last week, electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa boldly told the nation that the utility was showing progress and that the country was “turning a corner” on load shedding.

All evidence, however, pointed to this not being the case. Power output rates have been lower even relative to 2023, and the energy availability factor (EAF) has barely changed year-on-year and is nowhere near the 65% target for March 2024, or even the 60% target for 2023.

Analysts and energy experts have long speculated that there is continued political pressure on Eskom to put up the illusion of progress – whether it be “capping” load shedding at stage 6 in 2023 or at stage 4 in early 2024.

While the politicians have been speaking on the positives of lower breakdowns (UCLF) and higher levels of maintenance (PCLF), Eskom’s own data shows that these metrics are ultimately cancelling each other out, and that the core reality is that energy availability has simply not improved over the last year.

In truth, any semblance of reduced levels are load shedding are down to low levels of demand – a significant number of South Africans are simply not using Eskom’s power anymore.

Eskom was asked for its position on load shedding suspensions and the article will be updated with any comment once received.

Read: The big Eskom turnaround lie

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