No more power cuts? Yes, but for how long?

By Chris Bishop

The good news is South Africa’s dark load shedding days could be over as another bleak winter looms. The bad news is maybe not for long because of more than a decade of low maintenance at Eskom’s creaking, ageing, coal-fired power stations; plus design problems at the new ones.

If you are wondering why there have been no power cuts over the last few weeks, the lockdown for COVID-19 has seen a huge dip in demand, for the 30,000 MW in the national grid, of between 6,000 and 9,000 MW. That is enough power to light up three cities the size of Johannesburg…

The lockdown means Eskom has been able send more gangs of maintenance workers into power stations across the land to mend and restore some of the broken and run down equipment.

“During these past three weeks we have doubled our maintenance from more than 4 200 MW to 9 500 MW. This will put Eskom in a good place to meet rising demand and generate electricity without resorting to load shedding. Even though it is impossible to make guarantees about load shedding,”   says SIkonathi Mantshantsha, the spokesperson for Eskom.

A lot also rides on changes to the new coal-fired power stations, Medupi and Kusile, in the country’s northern Limpopo province.  Foundations were laid more than a decade ago, but the power stations were full of problems as well as being behind time and over budget.  

“We must caution the people of South Africa always that our equipment and our generators are quite unreliable and old. So we can never give guarantees until we have fixed the design faults at our new power stations at Kusile and Medupi. Then, once we have done that, we hope never to use the world load shedding again” says Mantshantsha. 

Yet, Chris Yelland, an electrical engineer  who has been analysing Eskom for more than 20 years, says the maintenance is merely what is merely what is known in the trade as “opportunistic maintenance” that can be done quickly and at short notice and may not last long. He likened it to patching a bicycle puncture instead of fitting a new tyre.  

“It will be merely fixing patching up boiler tubes and mending water and oil leaks,” says Yelland.  

“What has not been done for years is a major overhaul; this requires a shutdown so you can open up the boilers, turbines and does what they call deep level maintenance. It is something that is expensive and takes a lot of planning. You need to bring experienced specialists from the equipment manufacturers, from around the world. You need to have spare parts on standby.”

Yelland says the maintenance that has been done is good news for the national grid, but questions how long South Africa’s creaking power stations can struggle on.   

By Chris Bishop

The good news is South Africa’s dark load shedding days could be over as another bleak winter looms. The bad news is maybe not for long because of more than a decade of low maintenance at Eskom’s creaking, ageing, coal-fired power stations; plus design problems at the new ones.

If you are wondering why there have been no power cuts over the last few weeks, the lockdown for COVID-19 has seen a huge dip in demand, for the 30,000 MW in the national grid, of between 6,000 and 9,000 MW. That is enough power to light up three cities the size of Johannesburg…

The lockdown means Eskom has been able send more gangs of maintenance workers into power stations across the land to mend and restore some of the broken and run down equipment.

“During these past three weeks we have doubled our maintenance from more than 4 200 MW to 9 500 MW. This will put Eskom in a good place to meet rising demand and generate electricity without resorting to load shedding. Even though it is impossible to make guarantees about load shedding,”   says SIkonathi Mantshantsha, the spokesperson for Eskom.

A lot also rides on changes to the new coal-fired power stations, Medupi and Kusile, in the country’s northern Limpopo province.  Foundations were laid more than a decade ago, but the power stations were full of problems as well as being behind time and over budget.  

“We must caution the people of South Africa always that our equipment and our generators are quite unreliable and old. So we can never give guarantees until we have fixed the design faults at our new power stations at Kusile and Medupi. Then, once we have done that, we hope never to use the world load shedding again” says Mantshantsha. 

Yet, Chris Yelland, an electrical engineer  who has been analysing Eskom for more than 20 years, says the maintenance is merely what is merely what is known in the trade as “opportunistic maintenance” that can be done quickly and at short notice and may not last long. He likened it to patching a bicycle puncture instead of fitting a new tyre.  

“It will be merely fixing patching up boiler tubes and mending water and oil leaks,” says Yelland.  

“What has not been done for years is a major overhaul; this requires a shutdown so you can open up the boilers, turbines and does what they call deep level maintenance. It is something that is expensive and takes a lot of planning. You need to bring experienced specialists from the equipment manufacturers, from around the world. You need to have spare parts on standby.”

Yelland says the maintenance that has been done is good news for the national grid, but questions how long South Africa’s creaking power stations can struggle on.

“You are talking about old plants, in pushing that plant you really are doing damage…For the past decade, this maintenance has not been done by the book. It is like servicing a car, the cost of not servicing costs more in the long term than servicing it.”

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