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Eskom approaching grid failure

Published Dec 15, 2014


IN the midst of last Monday’s black-outs we read in the Cape Times that “Eskom CEO, Tshediso Matona, said the aim for the load shedding was to fill the pumped storage dams and diesel tanks and undertake essential maintenance.”

Matona casually revealed that he has little idea of what his business is all about, or what his staff is desperately battling with. The load shedding is solely caused by essential maintenance not being carried out, alternatively, it being poorly executed, with virtually every item of improper maintenance having been exposed at one time or another. Last week he had an unplanned outage of around 15 percent of total generating capacity, much greater than that of planned outage, again indicating poor standards of maintenance; running equipment hard is not a major factor in the failure of equipment designed for just that.

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Maybe we have to tell Matona that the pumped storage schemes (a mere 600MW, equivalent to only one of some 60 main turbogenerators) are designed for peak-shaving, to absorb excess power availability by pumping water uphill, for it to flow down through hydraulic turbines to generate power during peak demand periods. For this to function one must have excess power availability (off-peak) which Eskom clearly does not have, so Matona can forget about pumped storage schemes magically coming to Eskom’s rescue – they are utterly useless until excess power is available for hydraulic storage. It is precisely the need for load shedding which has made them useless.

As for requiring load shedding to fill the diesel tanks at Ankerlig and Gourikwa gas turbine peaking (now base load) stations, that is crass nonsense. Maybe the fuel would be deliverable if Eskom had the funds available to pay the diesel supplier, but whose fault is that? Only Eskom’s, its inability to collect debts from defaulting municipalities, or its inability to sell enough electricity: in fact, Eskom is the world’s only power utility which pays consumers not to consume. Or maybe Matona could cover part of the diesel bill out of his extravagant salary?

Matona must only ensure that maintenance is carried out properly, by competent personnel, and his crisis would disappear. Otherwise, he had better brush off a big red manual which is probably entitled “Total Grid Failure and System Black Start”, at least ensure that critical personnel know what a black start entails, and that he has a stash of big torches with long-life batteries alongside the manual. It will take many days, if not weeks, to restart the grid from scratch: if I have read it correctly, the system is not exactly designed to facilitate a black start.

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The consequences of grid failure are beyond contemplation as the country would inexorably grind to a halt, while the tipping point does appear to be fast approaching. However, Matona was quoted last week as saying that Eskom has no crisis; if this is business as usual, one cannot imagine what he considers to be a failed organisation. Even the cabinet, a body not known for acknowledging crises, disagrees.

We must all take note that Matona is technically challenged, his background being politics and economics, not entirely suitable for the boss of Eskom, an intensely technical business. And we should all be very worried unless he can urgently exhibit management skills to empower the precious talents required to rescue Eskom and the country from impending disaster. But the Matona we saw on TV last week gave little reason for confidence, warning of human failures being a factor and we know too well what that implies. “Dodging the bullet” comes to mind!

Roger Toms

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Hout Bay

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