Get off the grid, urges Blom amid ‘terminally ill Eskom’ woes

Eskom woes: Energy expert Ted Blom predicts that, at best, the power utility could be guided to a “soft landing” before it finally collapses. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Energy expert Ted Blom predicts that, at best, the power utility could be guided to a “soft landing” before it finally collapses. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Boasting 34 years’ experience in South Africa’s mining and energy sectors, Ted Blom has not only become a force to be reckoned with in the energy sphere, but also a trusted advisor to farmers across the country.

As an energy expert, he holds a number of qualifications, including BCom and BJuris degrees from the Nelson Mandela University and an MBA from Wits. He is the public’s go-to guy when it comes to the intricacies of Eskom and our fragile electricity supply network.

In an interview with Food For Mzansi’s Sinesipho Tom, Blom speaks candidly about the biggest issue facing power generation in South Africa and the impact of 20 years of ”nepotism, political interference and state capture”.

You’ve come a long way in Mzansi’s energy sector…

I first became engaged with Eskom in 1987 when it was still known as Escom (“Electricity Supply Commission”). I started as an internal management consultant in the finance division.

Energy expert Ted Blom. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

The pool of post-grads [of which I was part] was seen as the “talent pool”. At that time, under [the leadership of] Dr John Maree, Eskom wanted to bring in “outside talent” who were streetwise.

I had worked at the Altron Group when Eskom’s head-hunters approached me. Within six weeks I got promoted to [being] the manager of this division.

My claim to fame was that I restructured the division of resources according to Eskom’s six divisions so that each post-grad could focus and build up experience in their chosen divisions and actually add value as opposed to just fighting fires in Eskom before they became big issues.

Since none of my staff wanted to tackle the generation division, I opted to get stuck in and received massive exposure to the core of Eskom, including its coal suppliers on the long-term 40-year contracts.

As a consequence, I was part of the head office team that visited the different power stations on a monthly basis and engaged with the particular coal supplier to that particular power station.

Given the depth of your experience, what do you believe is the single biggest issue facing power generation in South Africa today? 

The biggest power issue facing South Africa is the probability of a complete grid collapse before customers have managed to secure alternative sources of power. This can happen at virtually any time, and the risk is elevated when Eskom ignores international safety margins.

The risk to the South African economy is also elevated when Eskom misleads the public as to the exact poor state of affairs of the grid components.

From my perspective, Eskom’s assets are currently being run into the ground, as their leadership have now publicly acknowledged that they are not going to refurbish old plants and restore these to proper operating health, but are rather going to venture into renewables and focus future spending on that area.

This puts the risk of meltdown at an unacceptably catastrophic level which is not appropriate for the South African economy.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow. What needs to be done by Eskom or government to alleviate our electricity woes?

I think Eskom is past the tipping point of reinstating the current fleet of generating equipment to proper operating health. Financially, Eskom should have procured 20 brand-new power stations for the costs they have blown on Medupi, Kusile and Ingula. At best, Eskom could be guided to a “soft landing” before it collapses, hopefully after customers have been able to procure alternative sources of energy.

It is clear that load shedding is here to stay for the unforeseeable future. What alternatives are there for people who don’t want to suffer at the hands of Eskom, including the agricultural community?

I think it is imperative for customers to be properly informed that Eskom is terminally ill, so that they can make their own sensible contingency plans. For smaller and non-energy-intensive users, I would suggest solar with backup batteries, or backup hydrogen (which gives better lifecycle returns). 

For the energy-intensive sector, I would urge immediate investigation into gas turbines or hydrogen derivatives (including ammonia as fuel) or coal gasification technology. The impact on the economy will be massive but given sequential failure to implement remedial action at Eskom, together with continued state capture, the alternatives have all but evaporated.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt working in the energy sector?

The energy sector is the oxygen of the economy and intertwined with at least 85% to 90% of economic activity. Accordingly, the health of the energy sector is critical for the survival and growth of the economy and economic growth and job creation. 

Unfortunately, Eskom has been on a steeply downward trajectory since it won the Global Utility of the Year Award in New York City in 2001, and given over 20 years of nepotism, political interference, corruption and state capture, Eskom’s demise was only a question of time.

ALSO READ: Farmers are ‘worst treated Eskom customers’

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