Eskom’s massive load shedding dilemma

 ·1 Mar 2024

A consortium of international energy experts says that power utility Eskom needs to do full and proper maintenance of its power stations – even if that means pushing load shedding higher in the short term – or risk its power plants collapsing due to years of neglect.

This is a significant dilemma that has emerged from a National Treasury-commissioned report, which was published on Friday (1 March).

The report was commissioned in early 2023 and was handed over to the finance minister in September of that year.

The assessment was conducted as part of conditions attached to the R250 billion debt relief arrangement for Eskom, and some of the findings will be incorporated into Eskom’s 2024/25 Corporate Plan.

As part of the assessment, the VGBE team visited all 14 Eskom coal-fired power stations and engaged with affected departments.

According to VGBE, its main task was to investigate why Eskom’s energy availability factor (EAF) for the coal fleet was so low – 50.83% at the time.

Treasury noted that the report reflects Eskom’s operational situation between March and May 2023. EAF has not improved much since then – but the power utility has increased its planned maintenance significantly.

Dysfunctional, complex, and littered with interference

VGBE’s findings were that Eskom’s management and governance structure is one of the biggest reasons for its poor performance – calling it “dysfunctional and too complex”.

“Too many organisational layers and opaque decision-making processes generate a tremendous amount of red tape, with lengthy procedures and a lack of accountability. In many cases, the decision-making is delegated to committees, of which there are too many at all levels of the hierarchy,” it said.

As part of this complexity, the group noted that Eskom’s coal fleet is managed centrally, and minimal authority is given to the plant management.

“The plant management has to follow complex procedures and is therefore unable to manage day-to-day operations and maintenance challenges in a timely and effective manner.

“Eskom generation has been trapped within this complex management system for so long that it is no longer able to maintain or improve the technical performance of the coal-fired power plants.”

The group said the solution is relatively simple: operation and maintenance must be improved and conducted according to industry standards.

This maintenance has been neglected and not carried out for years, it said, while high levels of interference crippled focus and broke quality management. Over time, this compounded, and a lack of training and competence led to plant damage.

This ultimately led to Eskom having much higher maintenance budgets compared to international benchmarks while also having a much lower EAF.

The EAF dead-end

The VGBE experts said that Eskom’s (and the government’s) fixation on EAF is a dead end that leads to poorer plant performance.

Eskom and the electricity minister placed EAF as a central pillar of its energy promises since 2023, setting a target of restoring EAF to 60% by March 2023 (a target it missed by a mile), 65% by March 2024, and 70% by March 2025.

VGBE said that outage and maintenance activities have been deferred in a bid to keep EAF higher. This means that the priority has been to implement quick fixes rather than restoring the plants as needed after an outage.

This has come at the expense of the technical condition of the plants, they said.

“This cycle has now gained so much momentum that it could lead to the collapse of plants or to further capacity losses.

It must be stopped immediately by executing proper maintenance and outage work – even if this means a higher level of load shedding for a limited period of time.”

The group said that up to 6,000 MW in partial load losses (PLL) could be reactivated by fixing the plants’ defects and applying prudent operation and maintenance practices.

On top of this, the experts said that the capacity constraints and newer plants need to be addressed urgently and that cultural change among workers need to be encouraged – particularly with rewards for good performance.

Given the mid-2023 context of the report, and the change in tack by Eskom since it was presented in September, it would appear that many of the suggestions have been taken on board.

Eskom has ramped up its planned maintenance to record levels – something electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa says is yielding positive results.

The power utility also claims it has now arrested the decline of EAF, despite it still not being at the levels it wants.

Read: Eskom ‘clarifies’ low energy availability numbers

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