Eskom versus European power plants – the difference is alarming

Eskom’s coal-fired power plants perform poorly compared to their European counterparts. Their performance is likely to deteriorate further as the number of problems at these stations grows. 

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

They went through Eskom’s coal fleet, plant by plant, to determine what changes the utility should make to improve the performance of the individual stations. 

The VGBE team also compared Eskom’s plant performance to coal-fired power stations in European countries to illustrate how poorly the utility’s plants have been maintained in recent years. 

The main objective of the coal fleet investigation was to find out the reasons for the low Energy

Availability Factor (EAF) of the coal fleet, which hovers around 51%, and to develop measures to improve the situation. 

The EAF of Eskom’s coal fleet is currently at about 51%, whereas international benchmarks are in the range of 78%.

The international benchmark was derived from VGBE’s database of coal-fired power stations across Europe, Asia, and North America. 

This enabled them to compare the performance of Eskom’s fleet with that of plants with similar power stations around the world. 

The following figures show a comparison of the EAF, energy utilisation, and unplanned availability of Eskom plants and European power plants. 

Comparison of EAF and UA of hard coal units (more than 600 MW)
: Comparison of EAF and UA of hard coal units (150 to 250 MW)

These figures show the rapid decline in the performance of Eskom’s coal fleet in the past few years.

This is as the past practice of running units hard to limit load-shedding at the expense of maintenance comes back to haunt the utility. 

The legacy of this practice can be seen in the sharp uptick in unplanned losses (red line) at Eskom’s power stations over the past few years. 

The first set of graphs, which includes Eskom’s new power stations, Medupi and Kusile, which are meant to lead the utility’s turnaround, is of most concern. 

Unplanned losses at these stations are also rising due to mismanagement and design flaws. 

More broadly, the VGBE team said several overarching issues exist, such as Eskom’s complex management system, inadequate maintenance, and low staff morale. 

Another factor is the general incompetence and lack of ability to implement theoretical knowledge in practice.

However, the report said that most of the issues “relating to the low EAF can be attributed to a single root cause.”

“The management system with its governance, structure and processes is dysfunctional and too complex.”

Eskom has too many organisational layers and unclear decision-making processes. This generates a tremendous amount of red tape and a lack of accountability, they said.

“Eskom’s generation fleet 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 plants.”


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