South Africa

Inside Eskom’s load-shedding disaster

Andre de Ruyter

A toxic mix of poor maintenance, a lack of skills, a shortage of spares, and poor leadership with the wrong people in critical positions are behind the worsening load-shedding in South Africa.

This year, South Africa has experienced the worst load-shedding ever, with regular power cuts across the country.

Data from the CSIR showed that Eskom had cut 2,276GWh of electricity in the first six months of 2022 – more than 90% of the 2,521GWh it shed for the entire 2021.

The bad news for South African households and businesses is that load-shedding will be even more prevalent in months to come.

Eskom’s latest system status report shows that the power utility is facing a severe generation shortage for the next year.

The outlook for the next year shows that Eskom will face a shortage of over 2,001MW for 49 out of the 52 weeks.

Professor Anton Eberhard, the director of Power Futures Lab at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, warned that people should prepare for the year ahead.

“If you’ve not yet bought your home or business solar PV and battery system, now’s the time,” said Eberhard.

The cause of the Eskom’s severe electricity shortages and load-shedding is its generation fleet’s declining energy availability factor (EAF).

The EAF reflects the percentage of Eskom’s fleet producing electricity relative to its maximum potential generating capacity.

Over the last six years, Eskom’s energy availability factor has plummeted from around 80% to the current level of around 60%.

Eskom COO Jan Oberholzer revealed that Eskom had spent nearly R7.7 billion burning diesel over the past six months in efforts to ease load-shedding.

It is higher than Eskom’s estimates for the full year, which reveals how poorly the power utility’s generation fleet is performing.

Eskom’s energy availability factor (EAF)

What went wrong

When Andre de Ruyter took the reigns at Eskom in January 2020, he promised South Africans that load-shedding would be significantly reduced from September 2021.

De Ruyter asked South Africans to grin and bear load-shedding for eighteen months as they were doing extensive maintenance to improve the reliability of their power plants.

When the time of reckoning arrived in September 2021, Eskom failed miserably. Load-shedding did not improve as promised. In fact, it got much worse.

It raises the question of what went wrong at Eskom, preventing it from performing the needed maintenance to keep the lights on.

Oberholzer blamed “pure negligence” by Eskom staff for load-shedding. He said employees did not perform their duties, which included ignoring alarms at power stations.

De Ruyter also admitted that incompetence and neglect by Eskom staff is one of the major reasons for load-shedding.

He added that Eskom employees acquired bad habits during state capture that embedded abysmal operational practices.

Daily Investor spoke to experts with in-depth knowledge of Eskom’s operations, who confirmed Oberholzer and De Ruyter’s concerns.

They said only a small percentage of Eskom employees have the needed skills to perform their duties – especially in technical and engineering departments.

Poor leadership, where the wrong people are sitting in critical positions, hampers progress at the power utility.

Another problem is procurement limitations, which were introduced because of corruption, which place a heavy burden on sourcing quality skills and spares for maintenance.

The procurement limitations have also created funding limitations on capital-intensive projects that are now cut or reprioritised.

The toxic mix of a lack of skills, poor leadership, the limited availability of spares, and poor maintenance is destroying Eskom’s power plants.

Despite plans to significantly improve reliability, Eskom’s big power stations like Duvha, Kendal and Tutuka have shown minimal EAF improvement.

The result is that South Africa continues to suffer with regular load-shedding slowing economic growth and fuelling unemployment and poverty.

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