Alarm levels around the country’s electricity supply seem to be escalating and South Africans are wondering whether an ominous scenario sketched by energy expert Ted Blom is starting to unfold for Eskom.
Blom told Food For Mzansi in a no-holds-barred interview in September that the power utility is “terminally ill” and beyond the point of returning its current assets to good health. “From my perspective, Eskom’s assets are currently being run into the ground.”
Announcements of South Africa’s current round of load shedding were accompanied by worrying information. Official statements released by Eskom in the past seven days included:
• A load shedding announcement on Saturday due to “breakdowns, numerous trips at various power stations, as well as delays returning units to service”.
• Eskom is currently relying “heavily on emergency generation reserves, which are now at very low levels”.
• The breakdowns and trips last week included those at Tutuka, Kriel, Hendrina, Kusile, Arnot and Kendal.
• The Koeberg nuclear power station’s unit 1 unexpectedly tripped on Sunday morning because of a faulty feedwater pump.
• An announcement of an extension of load shedding on Tuesday morning because “further delays in returning other units to service have exacerbated the capacity constraints, hampering the ability to replenish the emergency generation reserves”.
• A warning that “there are a number of generation units running at risk of failure that cannot be attended to at the moment due to the current capacity constraints”.
• Generation loss due to breakdowns amounted to 13 333MW on Monday, and only 5 548MW due to planned maintenance. At the weekend, total breakdowns amounted to over 15 000MW.
‘Ignoring international safety margins’
As an energy expert and consultant with extensive experience in Eskom’s generation division, Blom told Food For Mzansi that 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.
“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.”
Finding alternatives is imperative
Farmers who are reliant on electricity have long been searching for ways to mitigate outage risks. Power interruptions can impact the optimal growth or cause damage to irrigation crops, interrupt cold chains, affect poultry farmers reliant on heat, affect the intake of grain and cause irrigation water wastage, among others, and amount to significant losses or added costs for farmers.
Chris Schutte, the director of Sonfin, an independent company that specialises in structuring green power plants for farmers across the country, says that although not all can afford it, it would be advisable for farmers to get alternative power supply.
The company builds solar plants for mega farmers, which run alongside Eskom power as it is more economically viable to remain connected to the Eskom grid than it is to run completely independently. The batteries to go fully off the grid are extremely expensive, he explains.
Blom emphasised that Eskom is past the tipping point of reinstating the current fleet of generating equipment to proper operating health, and that it is imperative for South Africans to know that Eskom is terminally ill so that they can make their own sensible contingency plans.
“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.”
For smaller and non-energy-intensive users, Blom suggests 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.”
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