Electricity shortage is not a crisis

December 10th, 2014, Published in Articles: Energize


Following a week of severe load shedding, which threw residential, commercial and industrial consumers into a panic, Tshediso Matona, Eskom’s chief executive, said that although the system is “living on the edge”, the electricity shortage is not a crisis but a challenge to the utility.

Tshediso Matona - head and shoulders

Tshediso Matona

Matona was speaking at a media briefing on 8 December 2014, where he explained how unplanned maintenance and equipment failure cost the utility between 5000 and 9000 MW of capacity recently, taking the system into a negative reserve margin and plunging homes, factories, small businesses and shops into darkness over two consecutive month-end Christmas shopping weekends.

He also revealed that load shedding is set to continue until the end of March 2015, but that the system should be less constrained between mid-December and mid-January because many factories will be closed between these dates. The system is expected to remain constrained until sufficient power is available from both Medupi and Kusile power stations, which could take between 12 and 18 months, he said. Medupi is expected to be synchronised in January 2015 and provide first power about six months later, and Kusile is expected to supply first power approximately one year after that.

Despite the outcry from the commercial sector, load shedding in its various stages is unavoidable given the constraints that Eskom is facing, as the utility must protect the system to prevent a total blackout. A blackout would require a total “black start” process which could take as long as two weeks before the network would be stable again. This, he said, would have a far more devastating effect on business and result in major financial losses to the country’s economy.

Matona acknowledged that maintenance has been neglected and the utility faces the challenge of keeping the lights on while trying to catch up with a backlog of maintenance and repairs, which cannot be postponed. He said the target of 85% availability is impossible to achieve at present and operational power plants are being driven hard to meet demand. He called on the public to “live lightly” and to use electricity sparingly.

A contributing factor to the current shortfall is the fact that Majuba, the newest of Eskom’s fleet of coal-burning power stations, is producing about a third of its design output as a result of the collapse of a coal silo, on 4 November 2014, which supplies coal into the furnace. The system of delivering coal by truck to the furnaces via a conveyor is not as efficient as a coal storage silo system and is limiting the power station’s output power. Another silo at the station is also showing cracks, and to exacerbate matters, a power cable was severed during the demolition of the collapsed silo, removing a further 1000 MW from the network.

The shortage of baseload power from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations has forced it to run its diesel-powered open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) as baseload generators. The OCGTs, which are designed to be used for three hours per day are being run for up to twelve hours a day. As a result, the OCGTs at Ankerlig and Gourikwa consumed 140-million litres of diesel in November which cost the utility about R1-billion.

Matona said that the utility’s recovery plan includes generating additional power for both base load and peaking applications; the effective execution of maintenance programmes; speeding up the return-to-service times after incidents; the reintroduction of demand-side management to reduce demand; improving the load shedding schedules to ensure alignment with municipalities; and the introduction of a national energy conservation programme.

He also pointed out that Eskom needs policy direction from its shareholder, the Department of Public Enterprises, but that clear policy is not forthcoming. As a result, there is a lack of clarity regarding future new-build projects such as Coal 3 and nuclear power stations which could help to reduce the pressure on the national power grid.

In addition, Eskom’s finances are becoming increasingly constrained. At its financial report presentation on 25 November 2014, the utility reported that its net profit would fall from over R7-billion in 2013 to R0,5-billion in 2014 due to rising primary energy (coal and diesel) costs and a dramatic increase in the use of diesel-powered OCGTs.

Having spent so much money on fuel and cost overruns on new power stations which are years late, the utility needs more money. Matona said that it urgently needs a higher, cost-related tariff to support sustainable operations. However, the value of increasing the tariff while generation capacity cannot meet demand is questionable. It is unlikely that higher tariffs will have the desired effect because a higher tariff may well result in lower sales of electricity – something the utility is already experiencing – as consumers reduce their demand through energy efficiency and alternate sources of energy.



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