Eskom’s chickens coming home to roost

March 7th, 2014, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize

Eskom been downplaying and minimising the possibility of load shedding since the blackouts of 2008.

Only a week ago, Eskom CEO Brian Dames told the assembled media that Eskom had the power system in South Africa fully under control.

Yesterday, however, Eskom pulled the plug on the country and commenced with rotational load-shedding of domestic, commercial and industrial customers across South Africa, supplementing the load curtailment of large energy-intensive users that has been taking place for months.

We have become used to a myriad of excuses from Eskom and its masters at the Department of Public Enterprises. If it’s not the cold weather, it’s the hot weather, or the wet weather. Or deferred maintenance, or an aging generation fleet, or the skills shortage. Whatever.

The bottom line is that Eskom’s new-build programme, and in particular Medupi power station, is running three years late. We should have had an extra 3000 MW of base-load generation capacity on the grid by now, which would represent an extra 7,5% of our current total of about 40 000 MW.

But, apparently, financing problems, skills problems, welding problems, software problems, labour problems and more have all conspired against Eskom, who blames everything and everyone except itself.

Up to now it would appear that Eskom has taken a conscious decision to let the country bear the economic consequences of industrial load curtailment – another name for industrial load-shedding – rather than the political consequences of domestic load-shedding. Eskom’s strategy was to keep the lights (of domestic customers) on at all costs.

But in light of serious generator failures and wet weather, this has since proved inadequate, forcing Eskom to embark on rotational load-shedding of domestic, commercial and industrial customers in order to reduce national demand by some 6000 MW.

If this continues for more than a few days, the political consequences faced by the government and Eskom for inconveniencing and load-shedding millions of disgruntled voters in the run up to the general election in May will be significant, and voting patterns may be affected. If so politicians are likely to come down hard on Eskom.

Of course it is not the wet weather or the hot weather or the cold weather that is the real problem – these are normal operating conditions that a healthy utility would take in its stride.

But with reserves running razor thin, system emergencies and load-shedding from time-to-time are inevitable.

Any slight mishaps on the supply or demand side can and will push Eskom into load curtailment and load-shedding in order to protect the stability of the power system and prevent cascading failures that could lead to a national blackout.

The real problems are in fact underlying structural issues and serious generation capacity shortages resulting in inadequate reserve margins.

The country is vulnerable and heavily over-dependent on Eskom as the monopoly generator in South Africa and on coal as the major source of primary energy for electricity.

To manage risk, the country needs to diversify the generation sector away from Eskom as the monopoly generator and away from coal as the primary energy source.

South Africa is rich in primary energy and in human energy. There is no energy crisis in South Africa. But there is a serious management crisis.

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