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‘It may not be seen like that, but I am making a difference’ — Eskom general manager for Grootvlei power station

‘It may not be seen like that, but I am making a difference’ — Eskom general manager for Grootvlei power station
‘I’m making a difference - it may not be seen like that - but I am making a difference,’ said Tshepiso Temo, the general manager of Grootvlei Power Station. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Despite the vitriol levelled at Eskom and its staff by the South African public, there are numerous employees who are passionate about turning the parastatal around and making a profound impact for the nation’s benefit, reports Julia Evans.

Tshepiso Temo started working at Eskom in 2004, right after studying mechanical engineering, when Eskom was still in our good graces and it was one of those companies engineers aspired to work for.

Temo recalls that the first thing she saw when driving into Tutuka Power Station on her first day of work was the over 100m-tall cooling towers, “it motivated me. I thought, ‘I want to work here, I want to make a difference.’”

But from the start, it was a tough gig, with Temo saying after six months she wanted to quit because it was so hard working at a power station.

And over 18 years later, after working her way up from an engineering technician, to a maintenance and outages manager, technical plant manager and now general manager of Grootvlei Power Station, it hasn’t gotten any easier in the face of a worsening energy crisis and the fall of Eskom’s reputation.

Grootvlei Power Station, Mpumalanga

An Eskom employee walking home from Grootvlei Power Station, Mpumalanga. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Addressing the over 350 employees of Grootvlei Power Station on Tuesday during one of his visits to all Eskom power plants in the country, Minister of Electricity, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, said, “over a period of time, as a result of ineptitude, bad decisions on investments, issues around corruption — no one looks up to Eskom,” which was met with murmurs of agreement from the labour group.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa to push for extending life of ageing coal-fired power station

“We know now that it is not prestigious to wear anything called Eskom because we are ridiculed,” said the minister, who said he too was ridiculed and called ‘minister of load shedding.’

“Don’t worry, we are going to take the insults. But the best answer we can give to South Africans, to demonstrate our commitment to this country and our constitution, is to make sure that we resolve load shedding.”

Temo said when she took the job as general manager at Grootvlei in 2021, many people asked her what the point was.

Temo travels a total of 2.5 hours every day from her home in Benoni to Grootvlei and works between 12 to 14 hours daily.

Eskom, Grootvlei Power Station

Tshepiso Temo, the general manager of Grootvlei Power Station, speaking to her colleagues in the control room. (Photo: Julia Evans)

But even when she’s at home, her four children have to tug on her jacket to get her attention because she is often on her phone checking if the plant is running properly, explaining, “when a unit trips, the first person that they call is me”.

“You can imagine, it takes a toll on you,” said Temo, “and when sometimes you get negative feedback, it makes you feel a bit out of place and like, ‘what am I doing this for?’

“What picks you up is to say, I am adding value to my country,” Temo said straight away.

“The point is that whatever megawatt I can help produce — it actually goes to the grid. It actually makes a difference.”

Finding dignity in the profession

Temo said since she started at Grootvlei, her biggest pride is that they have started an outage repair schedule, which has improved the Energy Availability Factor (EAF) of the units.

As one of the oldest coal-fired power stations in the country, with its first unit commissioned in 1969, Grootvlei was meant to be decommissioned after about 50 years. But because of a lack of generation capacity to meet demand, the plants’ life was extended to 2027.

Temo explained that before the life of Grootvlei was extended, they ran the units hard and didn’t do regular maintenance.

Eskom employees at Grootvlei Power Station

Eskom employees at Grootvlei Power Station on the day the Minister of Electricity, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, visited the station, 28 March 2023, Grootvlei, Mpumalanga. (Photo: Julia Evans)

But when it was decided to extend until 2027, Grootvlei started a maintenance schedule, where every 18 months one unit (out of the three in operation) would be shut so they could do inspections and repairs.

Temo says this change has been reflected, as the two units that have gone through the outage reports (one is currently out for maintenance), now have an EAF of 90%.

An uncertain future

Grootvlei is meant to close in 2027, but during his visit on Tuesday, Minister Ramokgopa indicated to employees that as we need megawatts connected to the grid now, we need Grootvlei to stay open, which was met by cheering from employees.

“When you come to a station where there is a lot of uncertainty about whether it’s going to close, there are people who are staying around here asking themselves, ‘what’s going to happen, do I need to relocate, find a new house?’”

She said that Camden Power Station finds themselves in that situation, where a unit was supposed to shut down earlier this year and no one gave them direction to say if it was to run or not.

“Those are the things that are negatively impacting the employees,” explained Temo, “but when you look at them, when you look at their faces — and maybe that’s why they were applauding the minister — they want to work. Not only to get a salary but to make a difference.”

While boosting morale at Eskom is vital, promoting the extension of  Grootvlei’s lifespan might not be the best thing for workers.

Eskom employees at Grootvlei Power Station

Eskom employees at Grootvlei Power Station, 28 March 2023, Grootvlei, Mpumalanga. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Jesse Burton, energy policy and just transition researcher with the Energy Systems Research Group at UCT told OBP, “one of the worst examples of transition planning comes from a plant called Hazelwood in the Latrobe Valley, where the plant operator pretended up until the last minute that the plant (also very old) was not going to close. To the extent that people took out loans, bought new cars etc and then were left without jobs when the closure was suddenly announced.

“A process like that is not a ‘just transition’ but just a ‘disorderly transition’ and we should expect more from Eskom in terms of appropriate planning, sufficiently engaging with workers and communities, addressing their worries, providing training and redeployment opportunities to staff — basically a certainty that the transition is just.”

Temo acknowledged that Grootvlei is part of the Just Energy Transition and can’t stay open forever.

However, she believes we should build renewable capacity at Grootvlei (Eskom owns 200 hectares of surrounding land and the World Bank did a study recommending what renewable technology would work), while the coal plant is still running. This way, she says, there won’t be a loss of power to the grid during the transition, and employees can see there is something for them after the plant closes.

Some Eskom employees have said they just avoid telling people they meet where they work because they are met with such animosity, which is something Temo experienced.

“But at some point, I went back and could say, you know what: I am making a difference in my own little way — it may not be seen like that — but I am making a difference.” DM/OBP

Grootvlei Power Station, Eskom

Grootvlei Power Station, a coal-fired power plant in Mpumalanga that was first commissioned in 1969. (Photo: Julia Evans)

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • rmrobinson says:

    What difference, exactly?

    • Mike Newton says:

      In a power station, some parts, eg superheater tubes, have a design life. They can be replaced. With modern monitoring systems and predictive maintenance the life of the asset can be extended indefinitely. Of course, in the end it is not economic to do so.

  • Johan Buys says:

    There were six units, two are working, how does Grootvlei claim 90% EAF?

  • Neil Parker says:

    I don’t know much about the technicalities of extending the lifetime of aged power stations, but I do wish Tshepiso every success in her unstinting endeavours. Heaven knows – we certainly need to see somewhere a successful ‘turn around’ strategy so let’s hope the vision for a managed transition to “renewable capacity” at Grootvlei can work as per World Bank study.

  • William Stucke says:

    Grootvlei is somewhat of an outlier. It’s a small old power station that was mothballed, and then brought back into service due to the current crisis. It has 6 x 200 MW units, of which two are running and one is being maintained. The two operating units have an EAF of 90%. Generously, let’s assume these units actually provide 200 MW each when operating. That implies a total energy output of ~1577 GWh per annum for each unit.

    Grootvlei has access to 200 ha of land. How much of its coal power could be substituted by Solar PV power?

    An average figure seems to be 1.7 MW per hectare. So that means about 118 ha of land is needed to produce the same amount of power that a single coal-fired unit provides – during peak periods. But, with solar PV having an EAF of only 25%, those 200 ha could produce ~745 GWh per annum, assuming it was all used. So, by replacing even one of Grootvlei’s operating 200 MW coal-fired units with 200 ha of Solar PV (and assuming no losses due to battery storage) a “Green Grootvlei” could only produce less than half (47%) of the output of that unit.

    Clearly, this isn’t going to solve our long-term load shitting problem.

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