Eskom's chief executive, Brian Molefe. File picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi

Pretoria - Juggling South Africa’s electricity supply and crucial power plant maintenance to avoid load shedding was “like playing Tetris”, according to Eskom interim chief executive Brian Molefe.

But the tight slotting of blocks of planned maintenance of the country’s ageing generators, alongside unexpected power plant failures and blocks of steady supplies is paying off, he said.

There had been no load shedding for 29 days by Sunday, as Eskom’s teams of “young engineers” successfully manage a live system, logging what’s available and not, triggering recalculations and decisions on bringing additional power on to the grid, he said.

Thus last Wednesday, when in addition to planned maintenance taking 4 608 MW off the grid, another 6 757 MW fell off because of unplanned crashes, the live system allowed for lights to remain on by bringing online some 500 MW to 600 MW of the 2 000 MW generated by gas turbines for an hour from about 6.30pm.

“It’s like playing Tetris, quite literally,” Molefe told a briefing on electricity on Friday in reference to the Russian-designed 1980s computer puzzle of slotting blocks.

Public Enterprise Minister Lynne Brown said that, while the energy supply situation was improving, “it doesn’t mean we are out of the woods” – and Eskom must be given the space to do the necessary maintenance.

“It’s too simplistic to say load shedding (due to maintenance) or lights on... We need both,” said Molefe. “Load shedding is very expensive for South Africa. Load shedding is the reason economists are saying the economy is growing slowly... Whatever happens, we will find the money to fund the maintenance programme.”

Eskom’s strategy is based on several factors: about 7 000 MW will be off the grid in planned maintenance at any given time over the next year. This is to catch up on backlogs that many of South Africa’s ageing power generation plants require, securing new supplies through independent power provider contracts, and managing demand.

According to Eskom’s planning, energy supplies will be tight until September 14 and again from May to August 2016.

The massive coal-power generators at Medupi and Kusile – to bring a total of 9 600 MW to the grid, alongside the Ingula pumped-storage scheme’s contribution of 1 332 MW – are behind schedule. In the case of the coal power stations, they are well over budget. Both Medupi and Kusile are already four years behind the initially announced schedule. This came because of moving completion deadlines, and are expected to be fully online by 2019.

The costs for Medupi currently stand at R105 billion – up from the initial R69bn price tag.

The costs at Kusile are R118bn, up from R80bn, according to an Eskom presentation to the parliamentary public enterprises committee in April.

Brown acknowledged there had been “insufficient planning”.

If Medupi had been built on time, “we would have averted the situation (of load shedding), or made it less”.

But the timelines had changed as “the game plan changed”, she said.

According to the information presented at Friday’s briefing, Ingula units 3, 4, 2 and 1 are coming online only next year in April, May, July and August 2016 respectively despite the Eskom website saying the project was to be “fully operational at the end of 2015”.

Medupi Unit 5, the second in the six-unit project, is now set to come into operation in two years’ time in September 2017, while Kusile Unit 1 is expected to contribute to the grid from August 2017.

Molefe insisted the completion deadlines as presented would be met: “As far we are concerned, as managers, this is what we deliver.”

Amid such delivery and maintenance commitments, the power utility is also seeking to resolve its contractual dispute with Optimum Coal, which supplies the Hendrina power plant in Mpumalanga.

When the Glencore company was placed under administration, it stopped supplies, demanding an almost five times higher price for its coal. Eskom refused to pay up, and lodged civil summons to recover an estimated R2bn in penalties the miner incurred due to the non-delivery.

After the stand-off, deliveries of coal which had been stockpiled resumed on Friday, Molefe confirmed.

The summons filed a few months ago would go ahead, he said. “We can’t in a clean conscience recover money in Soweto (from the poor), if we don’t recover from Glencore.”

Of the R25bn owed by municipalities to Eskom, R8bn are due from Soweto.

While some of that R25bn debt is current, or monies owed on the latest bills, longer-term municipal debt stood at R4.5bn, according to Eskom.

DA MP Natasha Mazzone wants Eskom to appear before the parliamentary public enterprises committee to explain why, despite its financial troubles, it paid R50 million on executive salaries plus another R10.8m in long-term performance bonuses, or R1.4m per executive.

Eskom earlier this year received a R23bn government bailout; the first R10bn tranche has been paid, with the second R10bn due in January, and the balance soon thereafter.

Mazzone said the Eskom Integrated Report 2015 also showed the power utility had missed 51 percent of its targets.

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