Tough choices for South Africa as stage 10 load shedding looms

 ·6 Apr 2023

Minister of Electricity Kgosientsho Ramokgopa says that South Africa has to make some difficult choices if it wants to get rid of load shedding – and may need to rethink its haste in decommissioning Eskom’s ageing coal power stations.

The minister delivered a detailed presentation on the state of South Africa’s coal power stations fleet on Thursday (6 April).

The minister’s presentation was exclusively focused on fossil fuel plants. It didn’t address new generation capacity builds or renewable energy, as these would be addressed in similar detail at a later stage.

Ramokgopa noted that South Africa’s load shedding crisis is rooted in the simple fact that demand for power outstrips supply.

Eskom has an embedded generation capacity of around 48,000MW, it is currently only able to reliably produce 27,000MW. Meanwhile, summer demand reaches around 32,000MW and can stretch up to 37,000MW in winter.

This creates the current shortfall of up to 5,000MW being experienced now in the summer months and up to 10,000MW – equivalent to stage 10 load shedding – in the coming winter months.

“If you are sitting at a guaranteed supply of 27,000MW, the difference is about 5,000MW in summer,” Ramokgopa said. “If this demand is going to go up to about 37,000MW – the worst case scenario — and we are not able to improve on this 27,000MW, you can see the gap grows from 5,000MW to 10,000MW.”

Tough decisions

While the minister stressed that renewable energy is the future, and the energy mix going forward has a significant portion dedicated to this, he said that the country faces a crisis right now, and the coal fleet makes up most of the nation’s base load.

This leaves the country with many uncomfortable decisions that need to be made, pitting different priorities against each other.

For example, as has been the case with Eskom seeking environmental exemptions to get Kusile units back online faster, the group could put increased generation, reduced load shedding and saving the economy over its environmental obligations.

Another challenging discussion is around slowing down the country’s rapid move away from coal and instead focusing on refurbishing units at older stations and drawing out improved performance by investing in surroundings assets – like the coal mines.

One of the trickier decisions that has been tackled by the country on several occasions is the usage of diesel and the open cycle gas (OCGTs)  turbines. The minister said that these OCGTs were never intended to be used as baseload generators, and were planned only for energy use around 4% of the time. They are currently being used sy over 11%.

However, they have been used to a higher extent before – between 2013 and 2017 they were used 20% of the time, he said. So the balance becomes absorbing the cost of burning through more diesel – or suffer the economic fallout of higher stages of load shedding if they cannot be used.

Even opting to do more maintenance comes with its balancing price. To improve performance through added maintenance, more units need to be taken offline resulting in higher stages of load shedding. To accomplish this, the discussion would have to move to what level of load shedding is ‘acceptable’ for this to happen.

This is a discussion that has not been had, Ramokgopa said, because any stage of load shedding is not acceptable.

The minister said that the overall resolution to load shedding boiled down to three choices – either the country increases generation, decreases demand, or moves forward with some kind of combination of the two.

He said that he would be presenting his findings from the coal fleet to cabinet, which would then determine the path forward for the country.

Sticking to coal

While not outright committing to keeping South Africa’s coal stations burning for longer, Ramokgopa’s address leaned on the side pro-coal talking points.

The minister said that South Africa’s load shedding crisis could be resolved by addressing the problems within the coal fleet, which he stressed are operational and technical.

Broadly, the coal fleet faces three key issues: people issues, design issues and investment issues, he said.

With the investment issues, he said that stations and Eskom as a whole were not investing in their assets as they should be – this includes things like parts manufacturers and the local coal mines which deliver their coal.

If the coal mines don’t get the necessary investment, they cannot produce coal of the quality needed to improve station performance. If parts manufacturers don’t get the investment they need, they cannot supply the parts and equipment the stations require whenever there is a breakdown.

Design issues feed into operational issues as well as the equipment itself. Ramokgopa described ‘outage slips’ – where poor planning and equipment issues lead to units not coming back online when projected, keeping vital megawatts offline for longer.

When it comes to people issues, the minister got to the rub. Due to the accelerated decommissioning plan, many of the workers at coal power stations are despondent and don’t see a future for themselves at the company. As a result, morale is low, and there’s little incentive to work productively.

Ramokgopa said that around 5,400MW of power supply is locked behind these operational deficiencies in the coal fleet. A further 1,900MW could be recovered by addressing outage slips.

When added to the 2,400MW of power expected to return from the Kusile Power Station in early 2024, the country could be rid of load shedding if it made difficult decisions to unlock it.

“I am confident we have the capacity, will and expertise to end load shedding,” he said.

Read: Government explains why it doesn’t need the state of disaster anymore

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