Eskom in dire straits, portending years-long blackouts in South Africa

By Ray Mwareya

Posted on Thursday, 17 November 2022 17:15, updated on Friday, 18 November 2022 09:48
FILE PHOTO: Maria Modiba cooks by a candlelight during one of the frequent power outages from South African utility Eskom in Soweto, South Africa November 11, 2022. REUTERS

The situation at Eskom, South Africa’s giant power utility, has become dire as executives quit the firm. Years – not just months – of blackouts loom; gas turbines gobble ZAR11.2bn ($680m), while broke municipalities fail to settle ZAR 50bn ($3bn) in bills.

“Eskom has lost the competency to operate and maintain its power station assets,” Matshela Koko, who was Eskom’s CEO between 2016 and 2017, tells the Africa Report, voicing his fears that the company now “relies on emergency gas turbines to keep lights on”.  

Koko was arrested on corruption charges related to his time at Eskom in late October.

Using diesel turbines to keep the lights on is tantamount to burning money with diesel, Koko warns. South Africa’s total domestic power generation per year is currently 58,095MW, while a projected vast capacity of 78 GW is required by 2030. The country has now endured 155 days of blackouts since January, Eskom has admitted.  

Eskom is now the ‘impossible job that nobody wants, according to an editorial in a business daily.  

On 3 November, the collapse of a poorly designed key chimney at the utility’s most important plant was the final straw, forcing Rhulani Mathebula, Eskom’s acting executive for power generation, to throw in the towel. 

Phillip Dukashe, the permanent executive for generation, tendered his resignation last May, before Busi Mavuso, a key board member of Eskom, abruptly quit in September. 

Enemy from within

A few months earlier, Mavuso had stated that South Africa’s electricity crisis is caused by state capture.  

Eskom faces an enemy from within – stealthy sabotage at the hands of staff and contractors allegedly aiming to squeeze as many payments as they can from the utility.

This malicious act caused all the oil to drain out from the bearing, thus damaging the bearing

On Thursday, a contractor at a key Eskom power plant was arrested for sabotage – it is alleged that the individual deliberately removed an oil drain plug to score more lucrative repair jobs.

“This malicious act caused all the oil to drain out from the bearing, thus damaging the bearing, which in turn prevented the mills from operating optimally,” Eskom briefed the public on the same day.

‘Too clumsy’ 

Pravin Gordhan, South Africa’s state utilities minister, reshuffled Eskom’s board in October and brought new faces. However, this might not be the remedy for the country’s perennial energy crisis.

“It doesn’t matter how often you shuffle the board. Eskom is simply far too clumsy to respond swiftly to the current, never mind the future, needs of South Africa,” Stephen Chan, an Africa governance expert at the University of London, tells The Africa Report.  

When Eskom’s situation made a turn for the worse with November’s collapse of the key chimney, its executives were frank, warning the public that rolling blackouts will probably last for years.  

“South Africa would not be experiencing load-shedding now if [Eskom’s] newest 4800MW coal power stations – Medupi Kusile – were working properly,” says Anton Eberhard, director of the Power Futures Lab at the University of Cape Town, who laments the collapse of the unfinished chimney, which was built in 2008 with a whopping cost of ZAR 232bn ($13bn).

Eskom’s escalating woes have now left its executives with no illusions that a quick solution to stop blackouts can be found. Maintenance of old, unreliable coal power stations means power outages will last up to a year, COO Jan Oberholzer told the public on Tuesday

Some 2300MW of generating capacity will be knocked off from the power pool, he said, as South Africa has resumed ‘Stage 3’ power outages that last up to 12 hours overnight.  

“As I speak to you, I’m cooking on gas in summer, without lights. That’s how bad Eskom has become,” Dennis Juru, president of the South Africa International Cross Border Traders Association, tells The Africa Report from Johannesburg. He says Eskom’s woes will push the country into a technical recession.  

Foreshadowing a grim situation ahead, Eskom on Tuesday told South Africans that the company has run out of money after spending ZAR11.2bn ($680m) to buy diesel for emergency turbines. 

There is no more money to burn diesel,” says Oberholzer, explaining that the cash-strapped Eskom has used more than the anticipated levels of diesel for its Open Cycle Gas Turbines.    

2024 recovery? 

Even though COO Jan Oberholzer revealed that Eskom’s energy availability factor has fallen to a measly 59%, there are plans to increase it to 70% by March 2024, he says. 

He pins his hopes on some older plants being closed as well as wind and solar streams coming onboard the national energy pool. Additional 6,000 megawatts are what’s needed to stabilise the grid, Oberholzer adds.   

However, “Eskom’s energy availability factor of 70% by March 2024 is wishful thinking”, says the utility’s former CEO Koko, who argues that wind, battery storage, and solar are necessary and most suited for a distributed generation. However, “they can’t be the backbone of the national grid”. 

For his side, Chan, from the University of London, reckons that “restructuring [Eskom] into smaller specialist units may be the only way forward”.  

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