Eskom’s big power station lie
Eskom has been telling South Africans that its ageing coal-fired power station fleet is the main reason for breakdowns. However, the real reasons are much closer to home.
Over the last three years, load-shedding has skyrocketed because of power station breakdowns and outages.
Eskom continues to blame its ageing coal power plant fleet as a core reason for load-shedding, saying these stations are unreliable and result in unplanned breakdowns.
However, Eskom’s data points to operational problems as the main cause of breakdowns and reliability issues.
To understand why Eskom’s ageing power plant claim is questionable, you have to look at each plant’s energy availability factor (EAF).
EAF shows 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 plummeted from around 80% to below 60%, which is behind the increased load-shedding.
There has been a particularly big decline over the last two years, with the EAF dropping to below 55% in recent weeks.
Eskom continues to use the convenient excuses of old power plants and a lack of maintenance under former executives for poor performance.
However, data provided by Eskom shows that new power plants, including Medupi and Kusile, perform worse than many old power plants.
The oldest coal-fired power station in its fleet, Komati, achieved an average EAF of 65% over the last year.
It is higher than the EAF of Eskom’s four newest power plans – Kusile (33%), Medupi (63%), Majuba (59%), and Kendal (48%).
Another example showing that the impact of age is less important than operational excellence comes from Lethabo and Tutuka.
Both these power plants were commissioned in 1985. However, Lethabo achieved an EAF of 75% over the last year, significantly higher than Tutuka’s 28%.
Tutuka is rife with corruption and mismanagement, which is the real reason for its poor performance.
The real reason for Eskom’s power stations’ poor EAF
The data shows that the age of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations is not the main cause of breakdowns and unreliability.
Instead, it is the poorly skilled staff, a lack of training, corruption, and not employing the right people because of affirmative action.
The data substantiates feedback from Eskom insiders, who revealed that poorly trained employees and a lack of skills at all levels are behind most of the breakdowns and poor maintenance.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that little or no action is taken against poor-performing employees.
Another problem is that procurement policies force Eskom to use suppliers that struggle to deliver equipment for maintenance and upkeep at power stations.
The government’s preferential procurement policy framework also significantly increases the price of products and services.
It means that Eskom has less money for important projects, including maintenance and refurbishments.
New Eskom board member Mteto Nyati, who is a respected engineer and former chief executive, highlighted these problems in a recent report.
Nyati told the Sunday Times that empowerment rules would have to go if there was any chance of ending South Africa’s deepening electricity crisis.
“Internal corruption is largely at the back of empowerment policies that promote local small businesses,” Nyati said.
He added that affirmative action is hampering Eskom’s ability to employ skilled people who can fix the company.
“Right now, we need to be focusing on who is the best person for the job because those are the ones who should be fixing what needs to be fixed, regardless of how they look,” he said.
However, there is no political will from Eskom or the government to do away with the policies which caused Eskom’s collapse.
Eskom hit back at Nyati’s comments by saying it embraced the preferential procurement policy framework act (PPPFA) as a state-owned enterprise.
It added that it supported “all government policies aimed at transforming the South African economy to deal with the pervasive conditions of inequality and socioeconomic imbalances”.
Power station age and EAF
The chart below shows Eskom’s coal-fired power stations’ average energy availability factor (EAF) over 12 months.
It reveals that while age plays a role in reliability and breakdowns, proper operations and maintenance are far more important in achieving a high EAF.