How Eskom is ‘planning’ to deal with the unplanned this winter

Picture: Moneyweb

Picture: Moneyweb

The problem with the utility’s strategy is that sometimes bad luck arrives all at once, and hoping it won’t this winter is naive.

Load shedding is over. (It’s amazing how quickly we shift from utter panic to simply forgetting about it.) Last week’s briefing saw Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan and Eskom chair Jabu Mabuza (and Eskom execs) meet their original commitment to report back within 10 to 14 days, and they assured the public they wanted to be “transparent and frank” about the challenges facing Eskom.

On the positive side, the briefing was more detailed and honest than many before, particularly those hosted by Eskom itself. There is – quite possibly for the first time in recent years – a plan. This should be seen as a positive.

But Gordhan also sketched two scenarios for winter that stretched the bounds of our collective credulity. Scenario one, which, we were told, is the actual plan, sees no load shedding during winter. To achieve this, Eskom would need to have under 9,500 megawatts (MW) of unplanned outages across its fleet. Scenario two sees a “maximum of 26 days of Stage 1 load shedding”. This is when unplanned outages spike beyond the 9,500 MW mark. These high-risk days are not contiguous (April 2 was the first of the 26 days, even though it is outside of what Eskom considers ‘winter’, and load shedding was avoided).

Load shedding ‘choice’

The fundamental problem with this plan is that it constructs a reality where Eskom is seemingly able to choose or plan which stage of load shedding to implement. Load shedding is a function of available generation capacity. On any given day, that may change due to hundreds of variables. And sometimes, as happened in mid-March, bad luck arrives all at once.

No one could have foreseen the loss of all imports from Cahora Bassa (1,500 MW) due to Cyclone Idai, plus a much higher than average number of plants out due to boiler tube leaks. Eskom lost as much as 13,000 MW in unplanned breakdowns, versus its assumption (or plan) of just 8,000 MW. Generating plants are very complex. Recovery from a breakdown or trip is not as simple as restarting a unit. This is why getting the system back to stable after a string of breakdowns takes time.

In the March instance, it required just over a week, a task made unnecessarily more complex due to a lack of diesel stocks, low water reserves at pumped schemes and the loss of imports.

Given the ‘reliability’ of the coal fleet, Eskom is placing an enormous amount of faith in being able to keep plant breakdowns to under 9,500 MW consistently, and for the whole of winter.

What makes Eskom’s conviction even more questionable is that it has rolled the dice and will do significantly more (40%) planned maintenance this winter than last.

The 3,000 MW to 5,000 MW range is high considering that last winter it hovered between 2,000 MW and 4,000 MW (seldom exceeding 3,000 MW).

However, Eskom has long run out of options.

‘Deferred’ maintenance under previous executives (a story for another day) has left plants battered, bruised and prone to breakdowns. The utility has to try to catch up on as much of the maintenance backlog as it can, as quickly as it can. This is going to take years.

During the briefing, a supply ‘recovery’ story highlighted the return of Kriel Unit 2 (475 MW) from a long-term outage. This unit has been out for almost a year (since May 3, 2018) due to a stator earth fault. If it returns on April 18, all Eskom will have achieved is to bring it back to service 10 days earlier than originally forecast. The return of Matla Unit 5 in mid-May is also being described as helping to “increase” supply. But all indications are that this unit was out due to a normal, planned outage. Units are removed from service and returned to service because of planned outages all the time.

The (up to) 1,200 MW being supplied by Kusile 2 and Medupi 3 ahead of these achieving commercial operation has helped keep the lights on over the past few weeks and will continue to. There are efforts to bring at least one additional unit online earlier too.

To keep unplanned breakdowns below 9,500 MW for most of the rest of the year (!) – not just until the end of winter – Eskom is looking to its customers to reduce demand by an additional 1,000 MW. It points to an “additional demand response” from the Energy Intensive Users Group (EIUG) of 500 MW. These users account for about 40% of electricity consumption in the country.

Eskom cites Earth Hour example

A further 100 MW to 500 MW will need to come from households as part of a “national energy savings drive”. Quite how much more households are able to save remains to be seen. On Monday, Eskom absurdly pointed to the 554 MW saved during Earth Hour – where many households literally chose to sit in the dark for an hour on a Saturday night – as evidence that “this can be done”.

***

On a bland final slide titled “Risks to Energy Availability” at last week’s briefing, four simple bullet points reminded everyone just how large the risks to scenarios one and two are:

  • Risk of new trips/breakdowns remains (eg, boiler tube leaks)
  • Execution risks
  • Unanticipated disruptive events, and
  • Delay on the return of line 2 of Cahora Bassa.

The next nine months are going to require an almighty effort, day-by-day, to ensure that plant is not run unnecessarily hard and that the required maintenance gets done in order to keep load shedding from spiralling to Stage 4 again. The risks are real. Getting through winter without Stage 2 load shedding will be an enormous achievement. And that’s understating it.

Hilton Tarrant works at YFM. He can still be contacted at hilton@moneyweb.co.za.

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