Eskom has been focusing on the wrong thing

Eskom’s fixation on the energy availability factor (EAF) of its coal-fired power stations is a dead end and actually leads to poorer plant performance. 

This is feedback from the German consultancy group VGBE Energy, which the National Treasury commissioned to analyse the performance of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants and recommend how they can be improved. 

The group comprised German engineers with extensive experience running coal-fired power plants and spent four and a half months studying South Africa’s ailing power utility. 

They pointed to several overarching issues, such as Eskom’s complex management system, inadequate maintenance, and low staff morale, as reasons why the utility’s performance has declined. 

The report also highlighted the negative effects of Eskom focusing heavily on the EAF of its fleet. “The fixation on the EAF is a dead end and leads to poorer plant performance,” the report read. 

Focusing only on EAF results in the maintenance of Eskom’s units being delayed over the past few years to try to improve the EAF or at least maintain it. 

This sacrifices long-term improvements from ‘proper’ maintenance on units for short-term boosts, creating the illusion of stability and improvement. 

Despite these attempts to maintain and improve EAF by sacrificing maintenance, Eskom’s EAF plummeted to 50.84%, a new record low for February. 

“The priority of the Eskom coal fleet operation has been to quickly fix the actual bottlenecks in generation capacities rather than to restore the plants to ‘as new conditions’ after an outage.”

To avoid this situation, Eskom has not conducted sufficient maintenance over the past few years to create a margin of safety and increase capacity. 

This, in turn, results in further unplanned outages as units are not maintained properly and break down.

In response, Eskom limits its maintenance to reduce the severity of load-shedding South Africa experiences.  

Thus, with rising unplanned outages, Eskom is in a vicious cycle of unplanned outages, reducing its capacity for planned maintenance, resulting in more future unplanned failures.

The experts said that this cycle has gained so much momentum that it could lead to the collapse of entire power stations. 

“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,” they said. 

The graph below shows the vicious cycle, courtesy of Standard Bank’s chief economist Goolam Ballim. The graph emphasises the widening gap between unplanned outages and maintenance. 

Source: Standard Bank Economy 2024


Top JSE indices