Load shedding inevitable as SA faces crippling power crisis

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By Jack Ward, managing director of power provisioning specialist, Powermode

Eskom has acknowledged the inevitability of load shedding in the coming months due to a lack of maintenance at its power stations, many of which are 30 years old. Functionally, they are deteriorating on a daily basis.

Consequently, unexpected plant breakdowns and on-going unreliability issues have derailed prepared repair and refurbishing schedules. What’s more, a skills crisis at Eskom continues to exacerbate its problems.

It’s a state of affairs that we’ve suspected for some time, ever since Eskom’s ‘keep the lights on’ policy was first aired. In a highly constrained power generating environment (like South Africa’s) something has to eventually ‘give’ if regular maintenance is not carried out on a creaking, ageing infrastructure already pushed to critical limits.

Eskom’s energy availability factor – the percentage of its generating capacity available after breakdowns and planned maintenance have been taken into account – has dropped from 85% to 75% since 2010. This equates to a loss of almost 4,800MW. International best practice is not to drop below 90%.

Eskom has done its best of late to divert attention from its crippling supply problems by highlighting the imminent launch of its new Medupi power station. It’s a strategy the parastatal most likely hoped would position Medupi in the eyes of South African consumers as the universal panacea for all electricity generation ills.

The bad news is the scheduled launch of Mudupi’s first power generating turbine (of a planned six) has been delayed. First expected on stream in late 2012, it has been beset with a series of problems and deadline after deadline has passed. The most recently published, the end of 2014, has now been revised to June 2015. An additional turbine is scheduled to be commissioned every nine months thereafter.

The reality is that we will have to wait until all six turbines at Medupi are functioning – around four years at the earliest – before the generating capacity lost since 2010 is restored. Yes, Medupi in its entirety will deliver 4,800MW which does not account for consumptive growth since 2010 or into the future. It will not ‘dig us out of the hole’ into which our power delivery situation has fallen.

So, rather than hold thumbs for Eskom’s new power generation facilities to come on stream, it would be better to hope that Eskom pays attention to a far more important priority; to restore the country’s existing power stations to health.

But this may well come with a high price – a resumption of regular load-shedding and unexpected power blackouts as power stations undergo protracted repairs. Financially, businesses and industry will bear the brunt of the onslaught as production levels are impacted and targets compromised.

Chris Yelland, a respected energy analyst quoted in Business Day, says Eskom’s management team has been tasked with “doing the right thing” [as far as power generation is concerned] and “if this leads to load shedding ‘so be it’”.

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