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Eskom’s De Ruyter dismisses talk by analysts of total SA blackout

Eskom chief executive Andre de Ruyter File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Eskom chief executive Andre de Ruyter File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Published Apr 21, 2022

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Eskom’s De Ruyter dismisses talk by analysts of total SA blackout

This has been raised as utility’s operational capacity is under severe strain

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ESKOM chief executive Andre de Ruyter said: ‘We have capacity through our stations in Kendal, Thuthuka and Drakensberg, as well as major industries that are ready to help us out if we need blackstart capability to start the grid in the highly unlikely event of a collapse.’ | File Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

ESKOM yesterday painted a gloomy picture of the country’s energy stability ahead of winter, but strenuously dismissed energy analysts’ concerns of a total system collapse.

In a state of the system briefing, Eskom chief executive Andre de Ruyter said Eskom had a 50 Hertz buffer that was safeguarded by safety measures, which gave the utility “headroom of up to stage 8 load-shedding”.

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Power systems operate at a specific frequency.

This protects the national grid against total collapse, which, if it happened, would plunge the whole country into darkness for a week at least.

“We have never had that possibility in South Africa, perhaps we would have to look further afield for the experience of what a blackout is like. There is an incident in New York in 1978 and it took them under a week to restore power,“De Ruyter said.

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Eskom had various fall-back plans in the event, described as “highly unlikely and distant”, that Eskom should breach a 50Hz oscillation (like a heartbeat).

“We have capacity through our stations in Kendal, Thuthuka and Drakensberg, as well as major industries that are ready to help us out if we need blackstart recovery (recovery from a blackout) to start the grid in the highly unlikely event of a collapse,” De Ruyter said.

Eskom’s chief executive for Transmission, Segomoco Scheepers, said closer to home, there had been incidents of total blackouts in Botswana and Namibia in the past, but that they were isolated events, which were quickly resolved.

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“The thing about a total blackout is that if our system collapsed, we would take our neighbours down with us, depending on what safety measures they have in place. We are very far from the likelihood of a blackout,” Scheepers said.

Energy analyst Chris Yelland, though, said the increasingly insurmountable problems the utility faced with its ageing coal fleet brought the spectre of blackouts closer to shore.

“I am having an anxiety attack. If 50 percent of the coal fleet is unavailable for duty and a further 25 percent is considered to be at risk, then perhaps a national blackout is no longer just a distant theoretical possibility but a more distinct scenario that needs to be considered,” he said on social media this week.

Yelland said while not seeking to be alarmist, Eskom’s coal fleet performance was exceptionally bad, requiring diversification from the 80 percent dependence on coal and, ultimately, 95 percent dependence on Eskom as a power provider.

“With the prospects of 100 days of load shedding this year, it is bad and getting worse. The economy, jobs, the whole country, customers of electricity are facing a serious risk, and we need to take action, put in place solutions fast to deal with this matter. This is a very serious matter that is generally underplayed,” Yelland said.

Analysts tended to agree the bigger part of the problem was Eskom’s lack of technical expertise and acumen with an all-round shortage of technicians capable of handling load-shedding problems.

Energy expert Ted Blom said wet coal was a red herring that Eskom used for its problems, but that the issue lay deeper, with substandard coal the utility was procuring to make up for volumes substituted through theft and load replacement with stones, amid other issues.

“The problem with the coal Eskom is buying is that it is sticky, like Johnson’s baby powder. Once that gets wet it clings to everything, it clings to the conveyor belts and other pieces of equipment, causing more problems,” he said.

Eskom said its alternatives lay in various means, including the lease of its land in Mpumalanga for private generators to load on to the grid, the 100MW embedded generation capacity of the private sector and the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (Reipppp) windows 5 and 6, and securing at least 200MW from private generators once the IPP Office approved the sale of electricity to Eskom above current contractual limits.

Sources within the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), however, pointed out that Eskom’s projects remained “conceptual” and required various other approvals, including grid connection quotations, before they could proceed.

Eskom said it expected an avalanche of applications for the private power generation once the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) had cleared the bureaucratic path for Reipppps and the private sector to apply for generation slots.

The DMRE disputes suggestions that Nersa registration is the main and only impediment to distributed generators taking advantage of the recent reform enabling sub-100 MW projects to proceed without a licence, even in those instances where electricity is wheeled through the grid and sold to third parties.

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