Behind the darkness: Why Eskom keeps switching off the lights in Mzansi

Behind the darkness: Why Eskom keeps switching off the lights in Mzansi

Unplanned repairs, substandard coal and flaws at Medupi and Kusile are just a few of the pressures facing Eskom.

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Poor workmanship at the two newest power plants, Kusile and Medupi, has resulted in a court battle between the power utility and suppliers.

Eskom believes that Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Africa has been largely responsible for as much as 1 000 MW lost in generation capacity this week.

The design flaws at the two mega-plants are set to cost taxpayers an astonishing R345 billion can be chalked up to the work contracted to the Japanese company. This has resulted in Medupi’s three operational units either being completely shut down or losing part of their output.

In the last week, every single one of Eskom's 12 largest and most vital power stations experienced break down, according to an official document seen by Rapport.

These breakdowns are reaching critical levels with 38% ( 17 371 MW) of Eskom’s total generating capacity offline. The last time things were this out of hand was in 2015 when a national electricity emergency had been declared and 15 500 MW had been offline.

Despite the fact that Minister Pravin Gordhan said the power utility was doing its best to prevent load shedding over the festive season, the document has revealed that may take until January 2021 to do the needed repairs.

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Design flaws at Medupi and Kusile

Two senior sources at Eskom spoke to City Press last week and revealed that a system attached to the boilers at Medupi is failing to control the heat circulating between the boiler and the turbine that in turn produces electricity.

This flaw leads to overheating which causes the entire unit to trip resulting in a 480MW loss. Medupi is now reducing the input to prevent overheating.

Another flaw at both Medupi and Kusile has seen a filter meant to retain fine ash caught in the steam rising from the smokestacks. According to the source, the filter is very inefficient, not catching enough of the ash and subsequently breaking.

As a result of the filter breaking Eskom dials down production to avoid breaching lisence conditions pertaining to emission limits amongst other issues.

Another major problem relates to the grinder that refines coal into a fine powder before it gets burnt. Each of the 480MW units has a set of these grinders feeding it but they erode faster than normal and have led to shutdowns in order to replace broken parts.

Whilst design issues are common at new power stations the source has revealed that Medupi and Kusile are more extensive than the norm.

The R1.5 billion recently allocated to repair these issues will not cover it all according to the source, but will instead be used to patch issues while the legal battle attempts to recover funds from the contractors.

Investigations into the issues

Gordhan revealed last week that forensic investigations have shown that the original equipment manufacturers at Medupi had done a ‘substandard job’.

The Minister assured media at the briefing that consequences would come for the substandard job and the extra cost incurred.

The company had partnered with the ANC investment vehicle Chancellor House Holdings to obtain the necessary BEE rating to secure the tender for the plant.

Whilst the spokesperson is remaining silent on the matter due to a company policy, the costs are mounting with the cost of building Medupi tripling from the original estimates. Evidence of collusion is also surfacing, with Eskom employees inflating costs.

Eskom has begun to admit that both Medupi and Kusile are plagued by fundamental issues that will deny South Africa the full benefit of their stated capacity.

Whilst the rest of Eskom’s ageing power stations suffering extreme breakdowns, the two new plants were meant to pull the nation out of the energy crisis. Eskom estimates it can take up to five years to complete repairs.

Mounting Issues

Another contributing factor to the power shortage is Eskom’s failure to purchase sufficiant diesel to run emergency-peaking plants at their full capacity.

Yet another problem is the issues with the transmission line between SA and Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa hydroelectric dam.

Eskom has also been plagued by a lack of basic maintenance at the various stations.

Deon Reyneke, deputy general secretary of Solidarity, has spoken of the failure to monitor oil and pressure levels which led to automatic shutdowns once the levels rise too high.

Ted Blom, an independent expert, has said substandard coal has led numerous issues with production. An example of this can be seen at Arnot power station where an entire 380MW unit had to be shut down to remove clinker ( caused by high aluminium content in the coal). This process takes days to complete as the boiler needs to cool down before the clinker can be removed from the sensitive boiler pipes with a hammer.

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Financial Difficulties

Of all the issues facing the power utility, funding is definetly one of the direst.Eskom is lending money to service debts.

In recent financial results, Eskom reported spending R45 billion on the repayment of loans and the interest on them.

The municipalities have had a hand in this with at least R27 billion in unpaid electric bills, with Soweto owing R15 billion.

Unsurprisingly Eskom is hoping for a R100 billion government bailout to relieve the entity of its current R420 billion burden.

Whilst Pravin Gordan has said an update on the plan forward for the financial issues facing the power giant, the plan of the current Eskom leadership hopes to see some of the debt transformed into shares.

The utility has also seen its profits plumet as the recent finacial results had seen a drop from R8.8 billion to R921 million in comparison to the same period for last year.

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