Eskom’s worst-performing power station – where workers fear for their lives

 ·25 Jan 2023

Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter says the power utility is implementing a recovery plan to get as many megawatts back onto the grid as soon as possible – but the plan depends on everything going right, including resolving issues at its worst-performing power station, Tutuka.

Presenting the plan to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) on Tuesday, de Ruyter said that Eskom’s six worst-performing power stations would be the focus of its recovery efforts.

These stations are:

  • Tutuka
  • Duva
  • Mejuba
  • Kusile
  • Matla
  • Kendal

Tutuka is the worst-performing station in Eskom’s fleet, which de Ruyter said is simply unacceptable, given that it is one of the newer stations.

The station operates at an energy availability factor of 15% to 17%. The Eskom chief said this is disappointingly low. The reason for this, he said, is that criminality is rife in the area, and the station and its staff are under siege by criminal elements.

“The station’s manager has to wear a bulletproof vest when walking the stations and is accompanied by two bodyguards. His wife has bodyguards, and his children go to school with bodyguards – all as a result of threats being made on his life,” de Ruyter said.

He said criminality is an egregious problem that needs to be addressed.

If this problem isn’t resolved, Eskom’s entire recovery plan is at risk of not delivering the megawatts it needs to the national grid, as Tutuka is a key element of this plan.

“Until the criminality at Tutuka is addressed, we will have a significant risk to delivering megawatts to the grid,” de Ruyter said.

Tutuka was one of four power stations that saw members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) deployed to it in a bid to protect staff and infrastructure.

The perfect storm

De Ruyter told the committee that Eskom had been hit by a perfect storm, which led to the current electricity crisis.

On top of the well-reported challenges to the group’s coal fleet, the power utility has had to address the refurbishments and upgrades of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Stations, critical failures at Kusile and Medupi, as well as the lack of liquidity and constrained finances at the company that prevent it from operating things like the open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs).

De Ruyter stated unequivocally that “if (Eskom) had more money for the OCGTs, the stages of load shedding would be reduced”.

Despite the ongoing challenges, the CEO hinted that there was light at the end of the tunnel.

He said that the current recovery plan foresees 1,862 megawatts being restored to the grid by the end of March 2023 – roughly the equivalent of two stages of load shedding. Meanwhile, 6,000MW of capacity should be coming online over the next 24 months.

However, the group needs skills, money and time for this to work.

South Africa and the government can give Eskom time by adding more capacity to the grid. De Ruyter said that there had been a positive response from the private sector to the lifting of the cap of own and embedded generation, with 9,200MW of projects in the pipeline.

While this won’t come online immediately, there is an extraordinary amount of activity here. This will provide huge relief to the grid, he said.

But in addition to this, he said that the government needs to step up and step in by aligning policy, regulation and financial matters related to energy.

He stressed that the legal separation of Eskom needs to happen quickly, as private investment is deterred when investors feel their bids won’t be fairly adjudicated due to Eskom having an “inside track”.

South Africa as a whole also needs a culture shift, he said, and start establishing a culture of paying for services. This was in reference to the R57 billion plus owed to the utility by municipalities that simply do not pay for the power they use.

From Eskom’s side, he said that the group needs to address the skills gap and needs to get basic housekeeping right.

“Walking our plants, it is apparent that basic housekeeping has been neglected – restoring those programmes is a critical enabler to restore functionality and operational excellence,” he said.

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