Government avoiding Eskom’s real problem

The South African government has failed to address the real problem at Eskom – the lack of maintenance at its coal-fired power plants – resulting in increased unplanned outages and, thus, increased load-shedding. 

This is feedback from energy analyst Adil Nchabeleng and data from Standard Bank, which shows that Eskom has failed to conduct long-term maintenance on its plants, resulting in unplanned outages. 

“The current crisis is not due to a lack of skills at Eskom. The current crisis is the focus in terms of what should be done,” Nchabeleng told the SABC. 

Over the past decade, Eskom should have been focusing on conducting proper maintenance on its plants rather than running them hard to avoid load-shedding. 

This has resulted in continued and intensified load-shedding as more of Eskom’s units break down due to a lack of maintenance. 

“Government somehow refuses to attend to this elephant in the room. Instead, they keep throwing curveballs at other opportunistic projects,” he said.

“The major project and focus at Eskom should be to improve the performance of their existing plants and returning coal-fired units to service.”

“Eskom should have been fixed a long time ago and returned to its original state. All it needed was money, skills, and people. Instead, we are having political discussions and long lectures on what should be done.”

Kgosientso Ramokgopa
Electricity Minister Kgosientso Ramokgopa

Politicians have regularly blamed load-shedding on increased maintenance over the past few years, saying it is “short-term pain for longer-term gain”.

Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa famously said South Africans should see the current stage 6 load-shedding in a positive light for this reason. 

“The load-shedding that we are going through now is occasioned by what Eskom is having to do to reposition the generation of our fleet,” Ramaphosa said.

“They are maintaining our fleet. They are making sure that incidents of load-shedding that have been given rise to in the past because of unplanned load-shedding events like breakdowns are put behind us.”

He added that the more intense load-shedding will not last. “This, as much as it is stage 6, is of a short-term nature,” Ramaphosa said.

Of late, Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa has said Eskom is conducting more maintenance than previously, resulting in load-shedding still being a reality. 

In a media briefing at the end of January, Ramokgopa said Eskom is exceeding expectations with its performance. 

However, there are several reasons why load-shedding continues to be implemented.

Firstly, at least 3,000 MW of available capacity is drawn from open-cycle gas turbines, burning expensive diesel.

The second reason is that planned maintenance is still significantly high. “We are hitting about 8,000 to 9,000 MW of planned maintenance,” he said.

“Even with that scale of planned maintenance, we still have a situation where we can keep load shedding at Stage 3 or oscillate between no load-shedding to Stage 3.”

While Ramokgopa is correct that Eskom is performing more maintenance compared to last year, this claim is disingenuous as it ignores that high levels of planned maintenance also include failures to return units on time, which should be reflected as breakdowns.

The claims made by politicians that more intense maintenance is the reason behind load-shedding are proven false by the graph below.

This graph compares Eskom’s unplanned outages to their planned maintenance. It shows that unplanned outages have steadily increased over the past few years while maintenance has stayed relatively flat. 

According to Standard Bank chief economist Goolam Ballim, this graph shows that Eskom is locked in a vicious cycle. 

He explained that Eskom’s rising unplanned outages impede necessary maintenance, causing further breakdowns and limiting future maintenance, creating a negative spiral. 

Source: Standard Bank Economy 2024


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