Johannesburg - Former Eskom chief executive Brian Molefe has broken his silence on the electricity crisis, saying the power utility needed to deal with systematic problems, increase the energy availability factor of its power plants, maintain them regularly and stop witch-hunts and diversion tactics.
In a wide-ranging interview with Sunday Independent at Irene in Tshwane on Wednesday, Molefe urged the Ramaphosa administration to run Eskom’s power plants by the book, focus on planned maintenance and dump ideological and “politically correct” decisions on the inclusion of renewable energy independent power producers (IPPs) into the national grid.
The former Transnet boss, who is credited with ending load shedding in 2016, said President Cyril Ramaphosa, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and the Eskom board must also stop obsessing with IPPs “that are not there when you need them during load shedding”.
This came after Eskom implemented Stage 6 rotational power cuts this week, hobbling the economy and causing job losses, especially in the mining sector. It cited wet coal as the reason for the rolling blackout.
In a week of drama, Ramaphosa cut short his visit to Egypt to attend to the Eskom crisis.
After meeting his deputy, David Mabuza, as well as Gordhan, Eskom chairperson Jabu Mabuza, and its board and management, Ramaphosa blamed “sabotage” at Tutuka power station near Standerton in Mpumalanga.
He said he had “instructed that the sabotage be investigated and they must immediately work with the SAPS and our intelligence services to find out exactly how anyone within Eskom could have disconnected the instrument that led to the loss of 2000 megawatts”.
Mabuza used his address at the SACP’s special congress this week to “apologise to the public for the inconvenience” caused by load shedding.
However, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) rejected Ramaphosa’s sabotage claim, saying the government was using load shedding to push for more IPPs because each boiler at Tutuka produced 600MW of electricity compared with the alleged 2000MW lost capacity.
Molefe said the implementation of Stage 6 load shedding took him by surprise, because “we have installed capacity of about 46 000MW” at Eskom’s 16 power plants.
“Demand on a typical day is about 26000MW, and Eskom reported that they had about 12500MW out on unplanned maintenance, which means breakdowns. That’s very big, where we expect unplanned outages to be limited to about 4000 and to have a portion of the fleet out on planned maintenance,” said Molefe, whose decisions to end load shedding included firing then Eskom consultant Mike Rossouw.
“At the moment, there is no planned maintenance. Everything is broken. Everything that is being fixed is broken without being maintained. It’s a big problem. The energy availability factor, I think it’s about 65% and that is why we have load shedding.”
He said the solution to the crisis lay in the energy availability factor of its power plants, which is the amount of time that they are able to produce electricity over a certain period, divided by the amount of time in the period.
Insisting that the energy availability factor (EAF) needed to be increased from 65 to 85%, Molefe said rolling blackouts would be something of the past if that were to be done.
“We will not have load shedding if EAF is at 85%. However, EAF is a function of operations. You know people complain that our power stations are very old and they break down.
“In Cuba, those people are still running cars that were left there in 1959 after the revolutions. How do they do it? Maintenance. They maintain them, they fix them and get them running.
“A 35-year-old power station should not be a problem. What we should do is run them according to the book as well as maintain them. It’s an operational issue.”
He said management priorities should also be reviewed.
“So if the priority is focusing on, for example, signing renewables that are not there when you need them during load shedding, deploying renewables that are not practically useful to deal with this problem, then you have a problem.
“What are the priorities at the moment? It would appear that renewables have been prioritised over everything else, even EAF and maintenance. They are very expensive. The cheapest form of energy is nuclear and we are not even prioritising it,” Molefe insisted.
The former Public Investment Corporation chief said he would consider assisting Eskom if requested because the situation was similar to what he found when he joined the power utility in 2015.
“With those two units of Tutuka out, they won’t cause load shedding if there was somebody who pulled the plug. That’s not the issue. The issue is systemic. It’s not an isolated issue of somebody pulling the plug. But to focus on the real issues, we need to be sober-minded, we need to be genuinely interested in a solution,” said Molefe.
“As a South African I am concerned, as a patriot I am concerned, and if there is any assistance I can offer, I would like to offer it now. I would consider it to solve the problem. If there was no problem, I wouldn’t go back. But now that there is this problem, what is sometimes called the death spiral approaching Eskom, I am prepared to consider it, just to stop that and maybe leave after that.”
Molefe said that while it was “not a time for grandstanding”, he felt “from the bottom of my heart” that he really needed to “extend the hand and offer to assist if assistance is required”.
“I think we should put our differences aside, if there are any differences. I think we should put aside all these kangaroo accusations and look at the problem that is there,” he added.
He dismissed Ramaphosa’s sabotage claims, saying they were a diversion tactic similar to the one applied by former public enterprises minister Alec Erwin when the Thabo Mbeki government first experienced load shedding in 2008.
“It is a mistake that is being done right now to also start casting aspersions, to also start making people feel like you are about to start another kangaroo court, another witch-hunt and say ‘somebody did this’.”
Molefe said while IPPs worked, their inability to store the energy created was a problem.
“They generate electricity but it cannot be stored. Until the technology to store the electricity has been found in the way that you can store cost-effectively and effectively store the energy so that when you need it, when you load shed at 3am as we have been experiencing now, you can switch on the battery and use solar energy in the middle of the night. That is not available. At the moment solar is not available just after sunset. Wind is available when the wind is blowing.”
Molefe said three years after he was forced out of Eskom on accusations of enabling state capture by the Gupta family, he has not been charged nor taken to court. He said while he knew the Gupta brothers, they never instructed him to do anything and neither did he “do any business transaction with them”.
He said he worked with the Gupta family as Eskom service providers in terms of contracts signed before he joined the power utility.
“There is a tactic in our body politic at the moment of starting a witch-hunt, just sowing the seeds for a witch-hunt, then getting the media to follow through and conduct kangaroo courts with very disturbing narratives that are never sustained in a fair process of a judicial process or a court of law,” he said.
“I was never in their pocket.”
Molefe said state capture was also a “political slogan” used by the Ramaphosa faction to get rid of opponents.
“The only reason they got into power is because they cried wolf in the form of state capture. At the moment there is a commission of inquiry that is trying to find out whether there was state capture, and yet people are proceeding and talking as if there was indeed state capture.
“Pravin Gordhan’s only reason for load shedding is because of state capture. In fact, Mr Gordhan’s reason for anything is state capture.”
Gordhan’s spokesperson Sam Mkokeli failed to respond to the questions sent.
Molefe also blamed former public protector Thuli Madonsela for his departure from Eskom.
“She violated the rules of natural justice. It was not an innocent mistake, because she acknowledges that the investigation was not finished. However, instead of allowing the office of the public protector to continue with the investigation, she rushed to finish it, impugning on my dignity. It is a political reason that ‘I don’t want the next public protector to do it’.
“Why? Because I have got political differences with her, or because the next public protector is not in the same political camp that I support. What does politics have to do with it?” he asked.