Unplanned Eskom breakdowns are still high - so where's all the load shedding?


In late October last year, Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan published Eskom's long-awaited road map, a 66-page overview of how the state intends to start turning around the key power producer.

Eskom said that keeping unplanned breakdowns below 9 500MW - about 20% of its total nominal capacity - would reduce the risk of load shedding. Around the same time, the utility started to give daily updates on the severity of unplanned breakdowns, which it has previously said are caused by difficulties keeping its ageing power plants operational. 

The debt-laden power utility was forced to implement load shedding early in January, which lasted for the better part of two weeks and contributed to the resignation of ex-chair Jabu Mabuza. However, it has since managed to avoid rotational power cuts despite unplanned breakdowns being well above the 9 500MW goal.

On Monday, for instance, Eskom said in a power update that unplanned breakdowns were at 13 337MW.  The utility said on Tuesday that while the power system is tight, the risk of load shedding remains low. 

So, what happened to the warning that South African should expect a higher chance of load shedding if unplanned breakdowns did not decrease?

The power utility, in an emailed response to questions from Fin24, said that load shedding had not been necessary over the past 10 days due to a number of factors, including demand being lower than expected due to planned outages being lower than the average 5 500 MW originally planned. This has resulted in more capacity being available than envisioned. 

In addition, the utility says it has been maintaining high levels of water and diesel for peak emergency generation. In the past, the utility has had to implement power cuts to allow it to restore water and diesel levels. 

"Our emergency resources, dam levels at the pumped storage power stations and diesel tank levels at the open cycle gas turbine power stations, have been maintained at high levels in anticipation of the increased demand from 13 January 2020. This has enabled us to utilise these resources optimally while maintaining their levels," said Eskom. 

The utility also said that three non-commercial units at its massive coal-fires power plants Medupi and Kusile have also been generating power during commissioning tests over this period. These have contributed between 1 100MW and 1 900MW of additional power to the system. 

Lastly, a drop in demand also helped, with actual use some 500MW lower over the past 10 days than was the forecast in late December.

The drop was mostly weather-related, said Eskom, adding that it had not seen any significant air-conditioning demand during the day due to lower temperatures.

"The biggest drop can be seen during the day, thus indicating the lower air-conditioning load. The peaks are also lower than originally expected, however not as significant as the energy during the day," Eskom said.

Energy expert Chris Yelland, meanwhile, told Fin24 that reduced demand likely played a role in Eskom managing to avoid load shedding for the second half of of January, adding that Eskom had many mechanisms at its disposal to help avoid load shedding.

"[Reduced demand] is part of the reason. Maintenance might be lower, demand might be lower, curtailment might be occurring and interruptions might be implemented. There are mechanisms that are used to avoid implementing it, but when it can’t be avoided, load shedding is likely to occur," said Yelland.

Ultimately, Yelland said, South Africa was likely to continue to have periods of load shedding interspersed with period where power cuts are scarce for years to come. 

This view is supported by a new presentation developed by CSIR principal engineer Jarrad Wright and senior engineer Joanne Calitz.

In a recent presentation, the pair said load shedding is expected to continue for two to three years, depending on key decisions and actions by government - a timeline echoed by Eskom itself towards the end of 2019, when spokesperson Dikatso Mothae told media it could take around two years to stabilise the grid after years of poor maintenance.

"An urgent response is necessary to ensure short-term adequacy and set South Africa on a path towards long-term adequacy in the 2020s," Wright and Calitz said. 

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