Load Shedding

Nobody can predict when the situation will stabilise

By Rebecca Davis 19 March 2019
Caption
File Photo: Eskom chairperson Jabu Mabuza and public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan during a media briefing about countrywide power outages on December 06, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

At a press conference in Johannesburg on Tuesday morning, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and Eskom’s top officials attempted to take South Africa into their confidence about the electricity crisis currently causing Stage 4 load shedding. Amid a deluge of technical information, one point was clear: nobody can predict when the situation will stabilise.

Money supposed to be used for maintenance on Eskom plants under the stewardship of former Eskom CEO Matshela Koko may have been diverted for corrupt purposes.

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, flanked by top Eskom officials, said on Tuesday: “The previous CEO and his colleagues have a lot to explain to South Africa.”

Earlier, Gordhan had told the press conference that adequate maintenance on Eskom infrastructure had not been carried out over the past few years, “notwithstanding what you might be reading on Twitter” – an apparent reference to Koko’s repeated tweets denying any wrongdoing or maladministration.

Reacting to Gordhan’s comments Koko told Daily Maverick: “I can categorically tell you that it is nonsensical and irrational. It is an allegation not supported by facts at least in my time.”

While the immediate cause of the current Stage 4 load shedding appears to be linked to the collapse of two transmission lines from Mozambique as a result of Cyclone Idai, Gordhan stressed that Eskom’s underlying problem was one of under-maintained plants.

The minister compared Eskom’s generating plants, which have an average age of 37 years, to taxis being driven “too hard and too fast”.

Eskom chair Jabu Mabuza said that for the five years leading up to February 2018 – the month which saw the resignation of former president Jacob Zuma – the maintenance undertaken on Eskom plants was “incongruent” with the deteriorating condition of the plants.

Mabuza asked: “If money was not spent on maintenance, the question has to be: what was that money spent on?”

The chair said that the state electricity supplier had now arrived at a situation where there is no other option beyond fixing Eskom’s equipment – “and to fix it you must take it out of commission”.

Load shedding, Mabuza said, is “the last option”, and “not something that is taken lightly”.

But the officials also pressed the point that Eskom’s problems are multiple: structural, operational and financial.

Eskom COO Jan Oberholzer explained that another challenge is the volume of leaks within the boiler tubes inside every generating unit. A total of eight units have been lost in the fast few days due to boiler tube leaks.

Within the next few days, these eight units will be coming back on,” said Oberholzer; but “at the moment this is biting us big time”.

Oberholzer later explained that while boiler health tests were carried out frequently in the past, the programme was stopped 18 months ago without explanation.

Another issue is the fact that Eskom has exhausted its available diesel supply, with the only remaining diesel reserved for purchase by the South African public.

The quality of coal continues to be a problem, with the contamination of the supply chain sometimes resulting in the delivery of substances closer to rock and sand.

Asked about whether potential sabotage had played a role in the current crisis, Gordhan acknowledged that “many people are speculating” on this issue, but said that there is currently no firm evidence to that effect.

The Public Enterprises Minister said he empathised with the frustrations of the South African public and understood “the kind of disruption that happens in the business world but also in various households” as a result of load shedding.

Eskom staff, in particular, the management and board are doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances,” Gordhan said.

He described the days ahead as a “huge struggle”, but said that “at this point in time we still are getting a better grasp of the problems”.

An independent team of 14 volunteer engineers is currently investigating the situation, and Gordhan said that Eskom hoped to report back to the public in “10 to 14 days” with more information.

We have not communicated adequately with the South African public,” Gordhan admitted.

No indication was given as to when the current round of load shedding might end.

Asked about the prospect of a full grid shut down – in other words, a total national blackout – Eskom chair Mabuza assured journalists that the possibility remained remote.

We are still very far from that point,” Mabuza said. DM

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