Eskom relapses

 ·6 Nov 2023

Power utility Eskom has reversed its momentum gained over the past few weeks, with load shedding making an unwanted return – and the system operator warning of outages in the landscape for years to come.

The latest system data compiled by independent energy analyst Pieter Jordaan shows that the positive trend data over the past month has stopped and the power utility is now back to old habits.

The ‘blackout meter’ – tracking the number of blackout hours the average South African has experienced during load shedding – has accumulated at 65.3 days for 2023 so far, after adding 1.1 days last week.

“Six weeks of low blackout levels and a blackout hiatus of 234 hours caused the meter to move sideways for a month, but it regained some momentum last week and is projected to end the year on 77 days,” he said.

The weekly blackout trend moved back past the medium-term trend after a brief cold snap normalised
demand, leading to higher blackout levels. Higher plant breakdown rates the week before, also increased the blackout risk significantly, Jordaan said.

“During October, the breakdown rate recovered by seven points to 27.5% as some large (Kusile) units came back online from long outage. Last week, however, the breakdown rate relapsed by more than four points for reasons that remain somewhat unclear,” he said.

The longer-term data is also showing a return to negative trends. The quarterly (91-day) blackout trend stood mostly stable – however, its downward momentum in October was arrested by the latest bout of blackouts.

The annual (364-day) blackout trend – which finally showed a turn in October – has also stuck in place.

Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa said in a briefing this weekend that Eskom had “dropped the ball” after keeping the energy situation relatively stable for weeks.

Power has mainly been more stable thanks to uncharacteristically low levels of demand, as well as Eskom almost doubling its burning of diesel.

Ramokgopa attributed the latest return of load shedding to breakdowns, where 11 units went out as a result of boiler tubing failures. He said that breakdowns moving over 17,000MW was unacceptable.

However, he noted that six units are expected to return by the middle of the week, on top of five units that have already returned, allowing Eskom to again suspend outages during the day.

Despite the minister’s more hopeful stance, Eskom’s system operator is far more pragmatic about what lies ahead.

Eskom’s Medium-Term System Adequacy Outlook 2024 – 2028 report shows that, even in the best-case scenario, the utility is unlikely to have enough electricity to serve South Africa’s needs over the next five years.

In both scenarios assessed by the system operator – both a low EAF (averaging 50%) and high EAF (improving to 66% and then 68%), the system does not meet the adequacy levels needed.

The high EAF scenario is deemed manageable, but given the state of the grid, the age of the plants, and the insurmountable challenges ahead to even meet this target, it is unlikely.

The study further indicated that if the plant performance decline is not arrested and new generation capacity is not rolled out timeously, the situation will worsen.

Read: Eskom eases load shedding for the new week – here’s the new schedule

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