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29 July 2016 19:48 (South Africa)
South Africa

Eskom: From crack to collapse, SA's power in peril

  • Greg Nicolson
    greg nicolson BW
    Greg Nicolson

    Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

  • South Africa
greg-loadshedding-subbedm.jpg

South Africa's power utility announced stage two load-shedding on Sunday after a coal silo “cracked” at the Majuba power station. Instead of cracking, South Africa's power system is constantly on the verge of collapse. By GREG NICOLSON.

On Saturday evening Eskom announced load shedding would commence after a coal silo at Majuba power station “cracked this afternoon” cutting supplies to all six of the station's units. Earlier at 12:30, staff noticed a crack in the silo and within 40 minutes they were evacuated and the structure collapsed. Immediately, Majuba's capacity dropped from 3,600 MW to 1,800. On Sunday the station was running at 600 MW as rolling blackouts occurred across Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, raising the spectre of the 2008 energy crisis.

Once pictures emerged, it was clear the silo had collapsed and not cracked. Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Eskom officials apologised for the wording in their initial statement but failed to explain the choice.

Majuba, in Mpumalanga, is only 13 years old, the youngest commercially operated power station in Eskom's fleet. Its three silos that each hold 10,000 tons of coal were built in 1994. A 2013 civil inspection conducted by an external specialist found the concrete structures were in good condition. Moderate cases of external physical damage have been repaired and the structures were rated low risk, said a report from Eskom's new CEO Tshediso Matona on Sunday.

Eskom officials denied the silo collapse was due to maintenance problems, suggesting it could be caused by structural or design faults. An investigation will be conducted in the coming months, but there's a pattern of failing to publicly release investigations into problems at power stations due to them being internal and the legal and insurance issues involved. “We may never know,” energy expert Chris Yelland said on the cause of the collapse.

Immediately after the incident, senior engineers and members of the Eskom's executive committee went to the site and triggered an emergency plan to protect the power supply to the country. To ensure the plant could continue running at at least half capacity, Eskom immediately applied for permits to transport mobile coal feeders to manually load coal in five of Majuba's six units. The feeders were in place on Sunday.

“The situation is perhaps not as bad as expected according to the scenario they have painted,” said Yelland after attending the Eskom briefing. By announcing stage two load-shedding on Sunday, allowing for 2,000 MW to be cut from the national grid, Eskom was able to build up supplies of diesel and water for the busier days ahead to avoid a total collapse of the energy supply.

On Monday, there is a risk of stage one (accounting for 1,000 MW) load-shedding during peak demand between 18:00 and 21:00. Wednesday may also see load-shedding for four to six hours while on Thursday Eskom will consider load-shedding all day. Explaining the situation in layman's terms, Yelland said Eskom plans to go into the week with its batteries recharged, but by Thursday its batteries will be depleted when diesel and water supplies decline.

While only the lightest form of power cuts are planned, Yelland said Eskom has taken an optimistic outlook. It's counting on no further interruptions to the power supply and hoping solar and wind contributions increase – on Sunday cloudy conditions reduced supply from solar plants by almost 500 MW, increasing strain on the system. Eskom will rely on interruption clauses agreed with at large industrial users BHP Billiton and ArcelorMittal to reduce demand.

Eskom is also calling on residential users to turn off geysers and pool pumps until 22:00, switch off non-essential lighting, and use air conditioners effectively by setting them to 23 degrees. If the emergency plans don't work or there are further supply interruptions, there could be widespread blackouts across the country with a heavy cost to the economy.

While Sunday's load-shedding was caused by the silo collapse, Eskom is in a perpetual fight to keep the lights on. Just last week the power utility warned of potential cuts as units under maintenance experienced outage slips.

Natasha Michael, DA shadow minister of Public Enterprises, blamed the energy crisis on Eskom's “deficient maintenance and planning” and a lack of quality control measures over the parastatal. The DA will request Minister Lynne Brown provide the maintenance schedule for all power stations as Eskom continues to operate far below its peak capacity due to breakdowns at plants.

“Eskom cannot be allowed to decide on its own maintenance benchmarks in secret and in the dark,” said Michael, who also criticised the plan to develop nuclear power. “Before the president undertakes clandestine foreign meetings on R1 trillion nuclear energy programmes, he should focus on our failing energy infrastructure at home.”

To plug the gap in supply, the government is looking to the launch of Medupi power station, with six units each to produce 800 MW. After a visit in October, Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises and Energy said its satisfied Eskom will meet the December deadline for synchronisation and completion of the power station's Unit 6, which will be Medupi's first to join the national grid. The committee it said will go a long way towards resolving the energy crisis.

However, addressing Parliament in September, acting Eskom CEO Collin Matjila said there was a plan to arrest the decline in performance from ageing power plants that suffer from deferred maintenance and poor performance from contractors. But he added it would take three to five years “to turn around the fleet”.

In his mid-term budget policy statement recently, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene acknowledged  it would require several years for energy supply to meet demand and said the state had taken steps to safeguard Eskom's financial sustainability. Eskom will borrow R250 billion over five years, supported by guarantees from government. The state will also provide at least R20 billion in funding raised through the sale of non-strategic assets. Eskom's credit rating has been downgraded by a number of agencies this year, but last week Fitch maintained the parastatal’s BBB+ status with a negative outlook, the government support preventing another downgrade.

Yet Eskom faces some hard years ahead. Professor Anton Eberhard from the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business said the country faces its worst energy crisis in 40 years. Eberhard said Medupi's Unit 6 will take another six months to produce reliable energy and the next unit will take another two and a half years to come online instead of the planned six months.

While Medupi runs behind schedule, Eskom has lost the equivalent of a whole power station due to breakdowns, is in financial turmoil, and could soon face a coal shortage, he said.

Writing in Business Day, Eberhard, who also serves on the National Planning Commission, suggested a commission of inquiry “to help us understand the origins of the power crisis, the lessons that should be learnt, and could offer policy proposals for reforming the sector.” He said the last time Eskom ambitiously built new power stations, it resulted in high tariffs and delays. “The recommendations of the 1983 De Villiers commission led to profound changes in Eskom’s organisational culture and efficiency,” said Eberhard.

A commission might explain the situation, but it's clear Eskom has cracked and is at risk of collapse. DM

Photo: The Medupi Power Station (REUTERS)

  • Greg Nicolson
    greg nicolson BW
    Greg Nicolson

    Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

  • South Africa

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