The unhealthy developments at the very top of Eskom are quite obviously destructive and destablising. But they are also diverting attention from the very real operational and financial problems that should by all rights be the full-time preoccupation of all involved.
South Africa’s current vulnerability to power cuts has very little to do with increased demand. The critical issue (besides the major build-programme delay) is the decline in the performance of the utility’s coal-fired power stations, which has resulted in a surge in unplanned breakdowns and a steep fall in the fleet’s energy availability factor to around 70%.
Prior to the recent ructions, there was a sense that the issue, while not in hand, had at least been properly analysed and that plans were beginning to take shape around resolving the performance problems.
These have arisen primarily from a lack of adherence to prescribed maintenance practices.
However, Eskom has also acknowledged (within the war room at least) that the deterioration is also linked to a loss of critical skills and a degeneration in plant-level operating disciplines. There are also concerns that maintenance quality has been well below par and that Eskom has failed to comprehensively address ongoing coal quality problems, which are a key source of partial load losses at the stations.
A previous management decision to centralise maintenance engineering at Megawatt Park has also been held up as a particular problem and it is understood that an initiative is under way to reverse that policy and redeploy senior engineers and managers from head office back to the power stations.
These are all relatively recent moves and those close to the process have indicated that it is simply too early to say whether the remedial actions are working, with breakdowns remaining at high levels.
But there is also a view that the interventions (framed by a reversal of the keeping-the-lights-on policy in favour of a maintenance-first philosophy) should eventually begin to improve plant performance.
That said, there are also warnings that the 18-month recovery window accepted by the war room may need to be extended, in light of inadequate resources and, as importantly, a lack of space, in a tight system, to actually carry out maintenance.
Hopefully, the recent disruptions at the utility have not entirely dislodged efforts in this area. Indeed, if there is one thing that the war room should be focusing on, it is ensuring that Eskom receives all the support it requires to remain faithful to the interventions already outlined for plant recovery.
Naturally, this will also mean supporting the utility with urgent interventions to improve its financial health, the absence of which could result in a chronic, yet still manageable, operational allergy mutating into a terminal disease, with devastating consequences for South Africa and its economy.