Here we go again, another threat to Eskom’s operations and yet another round of load shedding. I’m not going to lie and say that I expected anything else in response to President Ramaphosa’s pledge to sort out the Eskom mess. With the 15% tariff hike also unlikely to gain Nersa approval and positive public sentiment towards renewables, something had to give. The response? A Sunday announcement of planned stage 2 load shedding which was quickly upgraded to a record stage 4 crisis without ever passing go or collecting R200.
So what’s the way forward for the embattled power utility? Let’s first take stock of where we are. Currently, there are no less than six generating plants down for critical maintenance (read: fixing broken facilities due to lack of maintenance). One of those is our old friend Medupi that is experiencing continued reliability issues. It really is the coal-powered hill that our country is going to die on if a full investigation with the subsequent prosecution isn’t launched into the construction.
I’m not saying that the current crisis is manufactured to put pressure on the various actions being taken against the power producer, but I am jaded by the 2008 load shedding scandal that pretty much forced the acceptance of the ill-fated Kusile and Medupi deals. TL;DR: it’s alleged that Eskom head honchos, lead by procurement head Koos Jordaan orchestrated a need for load shedding that called for emergency coal orders to the tune of R10-billion, this purchase was riddled with irregularities and corruption. Jordaan resigned to take a seat at the head of a coal mine.
The current outages can be traced back to a 50% decrease in maintenance spending since the middle of the decade, which in itself was done to redress the effect of the 2010 government mandate to keep the lights on. What Monday’s stage 4 load shedding and the continued stage 3 process tells us is that Eskom is operating at about 60% of its generating capacity. This is almost 20% down from the then-critical 79% generation capacity reported in 2017.
What infuriates me, though, is that Eskom can’t give a decent reason for why diesel levels for the backup generators are also low. There were coal shortages at the end of 2018, so wouldn’t it be wise to stock up on diesel when everything magically returned to functional? Of course, there are rumours of union interference at power plants in the ramp up to strike action at the mere hint of privatisation through the unbundling. The unions have predictably denied any sabotage, though.
I’m in full support of the unbundling and handing electricity generation and plant maintenance over to the private sector. The government can administer and regulate the power utility to its heart’s content, but I am certain that the ideas that will take us off of the coal barrel do not exist within its ranks. bring on the age of independent power production, maybe a big corporation will invest in building out government-funded IP. Yes, I’m saying that I hope a private company puts up a PBMR.