Amanda Watson
News Editor
3 minute read
20 Mar 2019
6:00 am

Now Eskom’s power – or not – hinges on diesel

Amanda Watson

Brace for stages five and six load shedding if much-needed diesel does not arrive in the country this week.

Steam rises at sunrise from the Lethabo Power Station, a coal-fired power station owned by state power utility Eskom near Sasolburg, South Africa, March 2, 2016. Picture: Reuters

If diesel takes any longer than this week to arrive on our shores, stage five and six load shedding from Eskom may not be far off.

This means Eskom would have to cut 5,000MW and 6,000MW respectively from the grid in order to meet demand, meaning more frequent outages.

According to Eskom’s load shedding website, stage four doubles the frequency of stage two, which means you will be scheduled for load shedding 12 times over a four-day period for two hours at a time, or 12 times over an eight-day period for four hours at a time.

“If more load needs to be shed than has been scheduled in stages one, two, three and four then National Control will instruct additional, unscheduled load shedding,” the Eskom site stated. “This means you may be shed outside of your scheduled times.”

Eskom’s schedule goes up to stage eight.

Explaining Eskom’s current inability to deliver power, general manager of system operations Bernard Magoro noted the utility’s plan B, the diesel generators which supplied 3,000MW – 2,000MW from Eskom and 1,000MW from an independent power producer – had run into a problem.

Simply put, there was not enough diesel in South Africa, nor were there any ships close enough for the between 20 and 25 million litres needed to top up the tanks.

The other problem was that the generators were never designed as base load suppliers of electricity, but rather to fill in at peak demand times.

When it came to shutting down units at power stations due to tube leaks, Magoro noted it was not a simple process.

“At 6pm on Monday night, we had a shortfall of 7,700MW. Stage four load shedding gave us 4,900MW and for the rest we had to utilise our diesel generators to meet the demand,” Magoro said.

Board chairperson Jabu Mabuza noted more than R5 billion had been spent on diesel to cover the shortfall caused by labour disputes, coal shortages and unplanned outages.

Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan said it was a “difficult time”. Flanked by Eskom CEO Phakamani Hadebe, chairperson Jabu Mabuza and chief operating officer Jan Oberholzer, Gordhan acknowledged people’s frustrations and apologised before local and international media.

With burst boiler tubes in eight units at three power stations, a planned strike on the horizon and uncertainty over the reliability of ageing plants where little maintenance has been done, Eskom is on the ropes.

“It’s going to be a struggle to actually overcome this crisis,” Gordhan said, “but we are determined to prevent us going past stage four.”

It is only in the next 10 to 14 days that residents will find out what the sustainability task team and technical review team’s plans are to keep Eskom’s head above water until all the issues are sorted out “in the next year or two”.

“It is a time when I know many people are frustrated because of the uncertainty around what is actually happening and the disruption which happens in the business world and various households as a result of the load shedding which is going on in the country,” Gordhan said.

Mabuza noted that for five years up to February 2018 – when the new board was appointed – maintenance costs had almost halved from R40 billion.

“This was incongruent with plants which were ageing more and more,” Mabuza said. “The question has to be, what was that money spent on? That is an issue which is currently being pursued through law enforcement agencies.”

Eskom was in an operational crisis which needed a corresponding response but financial processes were not allowing this, Mabuza said.

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