Was Eskom really sabotaged?

Energy expert and former advisor to Eskom, Mike Rossouw, has questioned president Cyril Ramaphosa’s claim that sabotage was one of the major contributing factors to stage 6 load shedding this past week.

Speaking to Rapport, Rossouw said that Eskom was losing the battle against the country’s deepening power crisis, and government was simply putting plasters over the problems.

The energy expert said that the big crisis faced by Eskom this week – where the country entered stage 6 load shedding for the first time – was at the Tutuka power station where some generating units were shut down.

This would have taken 1,150MW off the grid, pushing to stage 6 load shedding. It was also at this power station that the alleged sabotage took place, Rapport said.

In his statement, Ramaphosa said that someone in the Eskom system disconnected one of the instruments that finally led to one of the boilers tripping and the system losing as much as 2,000MW; however, Rossouw wasn’t so sure.

“I don’t know what instrument the president is referring to, but arguably the pyrometer is the most important instrument in the station,” he said.

Pyrometers measure the temperatures inside the plants at various places and ensure that everything operates at the temperatures they should. There are simply not enough of these instruments in the stations, Rapport said, noting they are regularly taken down and then reinstalled elsewhere during maintenance.

The paper reported that as soon as inquiries were put forward about the sabotage at the plant, workers received SMSes saying they should not talk to outsiders about the issue. The claims of sabotage are being investigated by the SAPS.

Rossouw said that it likely was not sabotage but rather failure to do the needed maintenance to keep the units going which led to the breakdowns, referencing reports he did for Eskom in 2014 and 2015 pointing out the work that needed to be done at the station, which was subsequently not carried through.

Who else is to blame?

On top of alleged sabotage and operational problems above, the latest round of power cuts and escalation to stage 6 load-shedding are now also the fault of former CEO Brian Molefe, the Sunday Times reports.

Speaking to the paper Eskom COO Jan Oberholzer said that as part of Molefe’s 19-month stint as CEO of Eskom he awarded long-standing coal supply contracts to small BEE suppliers.

He added that while sabotage, poor maintenance, rain, leaky boilers and broken conveyor belts have taken the blame, it was these multi-billion-rand coal contracts that have caused Eskom’s near collapse.

“What we pay for is often definitely not what we receive in terms of specifications,”  Oberholzer said.

Eskom previously relied on 50-year coal contracts, which restricted its supply to large, established mining houses. These were being phased out to enable smaller BEE suppliers to enter the market. When Molefe was appointed in 2015 he ramped up the process.

Oberholzer said though the intention of the policy was good, this had led to some “opportunistic suppliers taking advantage of our huge supply demands” by supplying substandard coal which poses risks to boilers and ash systems” .

To combat this, Oberholzer said that Eskom is reviewing its active coal contracts to ensure adherence and price fairness.

Cost of load shedding

An analysis by economists at the Efficient Group shows that load shedding has already had a big impact on the local economy.

The group’s ‘cost of load shedding model’ considers GDP from the supply side and uses assumptions about the ability of an industry to mitigate the cost of downtime, said the Efficient Group’s Francois Stofberg.

Stofberg said that the group’s model further assumes an average downtime of seven hours a day – which is equivalent to something between stage 3 and 4 on a consistent basis.

“Using these assumptions, we find that the cost of load shedding has reduced our GDP growth by roughly 0.30% in 2019. This translates to R8.5 billion of real, inflation-adjusted rands,” he said.

“This value is much less than some estimates going around, but these estimates usually do not adjust for the ability of consumers and producers to change their trade-habits and therefore, often overstate the impact of load shedding.”

Read: Sabotage at Eskom to blame for massive power loss: Ramaphosa

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Was Eskom really sabotaged?