One of the main reasons given for the recent suspension of Eskom CEO Tshediso Matona and three other senior executives related to a “lack of credible information” surrounding the poor performance of the existing coal-fired power plants.
But what, in the area of the performance of the coal feet, is the board-led ‘fact-finding’ mission likely to find and how revealing is it likely to be? The awkward answer is that very little new is likely to emerge. Unless, of course, the Eskom executives and, until recently, the Minister have been engaging in an elaborate disinformation campaign.
The analysis will show, as is already widely known, that there has been a significant increase in breakdowns since 2010. These unplanned outages are not only high, but volatile, with losses, at times, increasing from lows of around 4 000 MW to closer to 9 000 MW over a short period of time. As a result, the capacity in reserve – the difference between the forecast peak demand and the available capacity – has fallen. This is significant, as the system operator requires the capacity in reserve to be over 2 000 MW for it to consider the reserve to be adequate.
When it falls below the 2 000 MW level, Eskom begins drawing on the expensive open-cycle gas turbines, its peaking plants and its demand- response contracts with large users to ensure that the system remains in balance. A grid-system frequency of 50 Hz needs to be maintained to ensure the integrity of the network.
The high levels of unplanned losses, together with planned maintenance of around 4 500 MW, mean that, on most days, there is now a 50% chance that the system operator may need to resort to rotational load-shedding to prevent a catastrophic blackout – a failure that could take weeks to repair.
The current prognosis is that this situation is likely to endure until at least the end of 2016, notwithstanding the creation of an action plan designed to accelerate the recovery.
This plan has three main components. Firstly, the aim is to increase capacity through the new-build programme, which has faced a number of schedule slippages. However, there is a view that the injection of major new capacity is likely to fall outside the 18-month window.
The second main lever relates to reducing breakdowns within the coal fleet and restoring the energy availability factor to above 80%. Here, too, progress is likely to be slow, owing to the scale of the backlog. To reverse the position will require cash, skills and spares (which are all in short supply), as well as time and space, to carry out the maintenance.
In parallel, a concerted effort is required to improve coal quality, with coal being responsible for a major portion of the partial load losses.
The third key component relates to reducing demand and introducing non-Eskom supply. In this area, it is understood that government, Eskom and the war room have been considering ways to introduce both demand response aggregators and an emergency generator aggregator.
Various other demand management schemes are being considered, as are a range of short-term non-Eskom supply options, including cogeneration from industrial and agroprocessing facilities, with the immediate focus being on renewing those short-term cogeneration contracts that are due to expire on March 31.
But, for Eskom, the critical issue, besides the interrelated imperatives of accelerating the build programme and improving its financial position, is restoring the performance of the coal-fired power stations.
The problem has been diagnosed, the remedies outlined and implementation is now meant to be the priority. It is difficult to see how the board-led probe will dramatically improve on either the analysis of the problem or the proposed solutions.