Time to call an urgent meeting ahead of festive season as Eskom breakdowns accelerate

Will South Africans be able to hang out their Christmas tree lights? Crown Prince Adil Nchabeleng warns festive cheer will be dampened if Eskom does not get its house in order amid an escalation of plant breakdowns. File

Will South Africans be able to hang out their Christmas tree lights? Crown Prince Adil Nchabeleng warns festive cheer will be dampened if Eskom does not get its house in order amid an escalation of plant breakdowns. File

Published Nov 22, 2023


Eskom is back at its worst levels ever in plant breakdowns. Even with the return of the 1000 MW Koeberg nuclear power station. Eskom is still struggling to shake off the higher levels and stages of load shedding.

If you would recall during the worst times of winter, energy demand was at 33000 MW yet still load shedding was managed at around Stage 3 levels. But winter is long over and now we are in the last week of November entering the December festive season. The writing's on the wall that load shedding is at severe stages even though Eskom has opted to remain silent about the severity of the situation.

Eskom says load shedding is about Stage 3, but it does not add up. The different power cuts do not correspond with Stage 3, but that of Stages 5 and 6

So what is happening at Eskom and why is the Ministry of Electricity keeping mum? Have the powers that be decided to not rock the boat and revise load shedding stages to higher stages? Is this just a managed PR exercise meant to contain public scorn?

The severity of load shedding alludes to a much bigger problem. This week's announcement was that levels of plant breakdowns were at 16264 MW and planned maintenance was at 6606 MW.

But the announcement omitted to dive deeper into the severity of load shedding and never touched on the current stages of load shedding.

What does that mean in simple terms? It means that Eskom is in a difficult state of plant operations.

In his usual weekend media updates the Minister of Electricity, Kgosientso Ramakgopha, addressed the public in his energy action plan update on Sunday. But (he) omitted to dive deeper into the severity of load shedding and never touched on the current stages of load shedding.

Then something happened, starting on Monday afternoon. Eskom changed the stages of load shedding, but never bothered to report the updated changes to the public.

Eskom power plants are not coping even with reduced demand. This alludes to a much bigger crisis than what meets the eye. As I have previously referred to, Eskom clearly is not coping and seemingly there is no budget allocated to fixing the power plants and returning them to operations.

What is worse, Eskom has been reporting that it was working hard to eliminate load shedding power cuts all together - a sentiment that remains a lovely pipe dream until it gets its house and maintenance budget in order.

Furthermore, the 16000 MW marker of higher levels of Unplanned Capacity Loss Factor (UCLF) indicates a much bigger problem.

The demand for electricity countrywide is declining drastically, but Eskom plant breakdowns are increasing drastically, once more indicating Eskom is not allocating the needed budget to plant maintenance.

There is no way Eskom could be spending so much on plant maintenance and yet yield little results in plant performance. It is obvious that money is not being prioritised towards repairing the current levels of breakdowns.

That doesn't mean to say that Eskom is not undertaking any maintenance. It is undertaking maintenance, but not doing much to lower the UCLF levels of plant breakdowns.

In an article published by African Affairs Journal, Volume 119, Issue 476, July 2020, Pages 395–431, on June, 24, 2020, it argues that Eskom’s extreme dysfunctionality results from long-running, and as yet unresolved, contestation of the parastatal and electricity policy more broadly by various interest groups, in a context of an increasingly fragmented political and business elite.

This has created a range of incoherent distributional pressures and institutional constraints. Rather than a straightforward outcome of corruption and ‘state capture’, this reflects deeper tensions in the post-apartheid political economy, the article says.

Mind you this is happening a month just after the departure of Eskom's chairperson, Mpho Makwana.

During his tenure there was an uptick in plant performance. The team managed to push down and reduce the levels of plant breakdowns to 12000 MW prior to his departure.

That was a huge reduction in UCLF levels. That pushed up the energy availability factor to more than 60% simultaneously. Those were the past glory months of Eskom's amazing plant performance and reduction in plant breakdowns.

Since Makwana left Eskom plant breakdowns have returned to their worst levels with power cut stages worsening while the public is left uninformed. The Minister of Electricity keeps singing the good news hymns. But nothing is really improving.

Yes, the return and synchronization of Koeberg into the grid is a great milestone. A whopping 1000 MW of nuclear energy was added back into the grid. This itself should have signalled a return to normality but alas the lower percentage of EAF indicates that Eskom is not as yet out of the woods.

Were we too early to celebrate thinking that Eskom is finally out of the woods? Maybe so. However in my opinion, it seems things are getting worse at Eskom and no one at the board and amongst Eskom executives seems to be paying attention to the growing energy crisis.

For me the key indicator is the higher levels of UCLF. That number alone is a diagnostic tool that indicates if Eskom is healthy, recovering or in a dire, sick state. Right now Eskom is in a direly sick state. Focus should be placed on ensuring that there is a drastic reduction in breakdown levels.

An urgent meeting needs to take place between Eskom and the line functionary departments namely Department of Public Enterprises, Department of Electricity, Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and Treasury to knock out an emergency funding plan to fund the much needed budget to undertake repairs and reduce the current 16000 MW in plant breakdowns.

To end the current load shedding Eskom power plants need to be performing at UCLF of below 10000 MW in plant breakdowns.

We are entering the December holiday festive season. A dark festive will further plunge the economy and destroy little left livelihoods dependent on the Christmas holidays.

Crown Prince Adil Nchabeleng is president of Transform RSA and an independent energy expert.

* The views in this column are independent of Business Report and Independent Media.