OPINION | Eskom can ill afford a legal fight over maintenance at the height of a power crisis

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Lungile Mashele
Lungile Mashele
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A large part of Eskom's unplanned capability loss factor is directly attributable to boiler issues. So it can ill afford a battle with top-tier suppliers, writes Lungile Mashele.

Eskom has finally announced its plans to reduce load shedding in the next 24 months. The detailed plan includes increasing the energy availability factor (EAF) in the next 24 months.

The aim is to see Eskom’s EAF move towards 60% by 31 March 2023, 65% by 31 March 2024 and 70% by 31 March 2025.

Making this work will entail a reliability maintenance programme which will require extensive capital requirements, skills, planning and government intervention through fast-track implementation.

Eskom says that the recovery of its coal generation fleet will be slow, and that execution is dependent on numerous factors. Eskom’s turnaround plan is premised on fixing issues of leadership, organisational culture and poor internal controls.

Together with a reliability maintenance recovery programme, Eskom will need to load shed on at least stage two or stage three, on most if not all days, for the next two years to counter what they claim is a lack of headroom to conduct proper maintenance.

READ ESKOM LIVE | All the latest news and analysis on load shedding

To this end, Eskom will focus resources on six power stations, namely Kendal, Matla, Majuba, Duvha, Tutuka and Kusile. These stations will be provided the best human resources, allocated sufficient capital and provided with original equipment manufacturer (OEM) support. This massive programme will require highly rated, experienced contractors who can deliver on the stipulated EAF targets.

As Eskom’s court case with a top-tier boiler maintenance contractor and OEM, Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering, drags on, one wonders then if this plan has all the necessary people on board. In December, 2021, Babcock was excluded from a key boiler maintenance contract for 15 power stations for not including a generic welding certificate in its documentation.

Eskom already had this certificate, given that Babcock was doing work for it at the time, and the OEM included a specialist welding certificate as part of the contract documentation. The Pretoria High Court ruled in favour of Babcock in November last year. Undeterred, Eskom will on Friday, appeal the court’s decision. This is unthinkable in this climate, where every single OEM should be put to work to solve the current electricity crisis.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has once again lamented the slow progress at Eskom and government departments, in resolving the load shedding crisis, reiterating that people don’t want excuses, they just want electricity. Furthermore, the president highlighted the ever-present issue of red tape. One wonders if the President could elucidate on where exactly this red tape is, and what causes it, because sometimes it appears self-imposed.

During Eskom’s Scopa meeting on January 24 this year, Eskom’s outgoing CEO, André de Ruyter, lamented the problems plaguing the utility such as corruption, a lack of funding and skills, and poor controls. He went on further to state that many of Eskom’s problems were self-inflicted and within their control.

There has been a concerted effort at Eskom to fight what it terms sabotage emanating from vandalism of infrastructure, theft of spares and fuel, and the delivery of substandard coal.

De Ruyter indicated that up to two stages of load shedding can be attributed to the sub-standard coal delivered on site, however the Eskom annual report indicates that substandard coal, including sludge only account for 0.64% of other capability loss factor (OCLF).

Dealing with alleged sabotage has perhaps dwarfed issues related to the boilers, turbines, draught plant, mills and generators which contribute to over 70% of unplanned capability loss factor (UCLF).

Eskom’s COO, in his annual report commentary, indicated that they have aimed for 80% outage readiness in order to execute reliability maintenance. However despite their best-efforts, Eskom is experiencing increased partial load losses and boiler tube failures. Boiler tube failures per unit per year have increased to 2.44. Furthermore, boiler tube failures contributed 2.45% to the UCLF.

Eskom’s coal fleet EAF currently sits at 50.4%, unprecedented for the soon to be 100-year-old institution. One ponders whether Eskom wants to go into this 24-month battle without adequate contractors and OEMs. Minister Mantashe at the ANC Energy Dialogue mentioned that the 24-month timeline given by Eskom is inadequate and that emergency procurement is required to end load shedding.

Given the urgent and precarious nature South Africa finds itself in which both threatens energy security and political stability, all solutions are required, and immediately. As the appeal process draws to a close this Friday with Babcock Ntuthuko Engineering, Eskom can hardly afford to be caught in frivolous litigation with top tier suppliers when 21% of their UCLF can be directly attributed to boiler issues.

Lungile Mashele is an independent energy analyst. News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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