'We can't work miracles', Eskom alone won't solve SA's power crisis - De Ruyter

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Eskom CEO André de Ruyter
Eskom CEO André de Ruyter
Gallo Images/Business Day/Freddy Mavunda
  • Eskom's energy availability factor is far below the assumptions made in the Integrated Resources Plan of 2019, says the power utility's CEO André de Ruyter.
  • Eskom has a role to play in the country's energy mix, but solely relying on it for power is not sustainable in the long term, De Ruyter says.
  • Renewable energy could provide urgent solutions to the country's generation capacity challenges.

To reduce the risk of load shedding the country needs to think differently about the approach taken to generate electricity, according to Eskom CEO André de Ruyter.

During an interview with Judge Dennis Davis on eNCA this week, De Ruyter spoke on the utility's current challenges as the country bears the burden of load shedding this week. Some of Eskom's power plants suffered breakdowns that warranted stage 4 load shedding, Fin24 previously reported.

As it stands, Eskom's energy availability factor - the maximum energy generation that power plants are able to supply - is around 65%. In contrast, the Integrated Resources Plan of 2019 assumes Eskom has an energy availability factor of about 75%, to support the country's energy mix.

De Ruyter said there is clearly a gap between the assumptions of what Eskom should do and the reality of what it is able to deliver.

"Eskom has a role to play, we need to get our house in order. We need to improve our energy availability factor," he said. "But ultimately, it's not a long-term, sustainable solution. We can assist in alleviating and managing the risk of load shedding, but we need additional capacity to be brought onto the grid as soon as possible," he said.

'We can't work miracles'

"We cannot work miracles with the system we've got."

Eskom is working with an ageing coal power station fleet, apart from Medupi and Kusile, that has created reliability challenges. "What we need to do is try fix power stations and patch them up to make sure can meet demand most of the time," he said. But at the same time, Eskom needs to comply with environmental legislation. It would require about R300 billion to be spent over the next 15 years to install emission mitigation equipment at coal-fired power stations.

But De Ruyter believes this capital could be better spent on supporting the rollout of renewable energy. 

Among the advantages of renewables is their cost-effectiveness. Particularly solar PV, coupled with storage, is cheaper than any other generation options, De Ruyter said. "It is scalable and can be widely distributed," he added. South Africa can also leverage off its solar radiation resources, which are world-class.

Making use of renewable energy projects, could avoid challenges experienced in large, industrial mega-projects. Renewable energy projects can be rolled out quickly and can be connected to the grid within 18 to 24 months, compared to coal projects that can take nearly a decade.

There is also funding available from development finance institutions and foreign governments to support renewables, usually on a concessional basis. "We have been approached by a number of these agencies with very attractive options," De Ruyter said.

Bridging the gap

When asked by Davis if power from the controversial Karpowerships would still be warranted if we opt for renewables, De Ruyter said that they could serve as a "bridging mechanism" in the short term to access electricity. Essentially, renewable electricity can't magically appear overnight, and so bridging options must be considered, he noted.

But De Ruyter emphasised that the cheap funding available for green electricity, coupled with a global climate change agenda, presents an opportunity for South Africa to "pivot away" from conventional fossil fuels and to choose greener and cleaner energy options.

Environmental, energy and industrial policy needs to be integrated in order to address the power crisis, he explained. De Ruyter believes Eskom can be fixed, but it requires a joint effort of the public, government and an enabling policy environment.

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