Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa’s pay-off line during a two-week stretch of stage 6 load-shedding is "short-term pain for long-term gain".
The higher stages of load-shedding, he says, are partly due to the ramp up in maintenance (from about 3,500MW to about 6,000MW) after the winter months. Ramokgopa argues that subjecting South Africans to higher stages of load-shedding now because of increased maintenance will deliver a more reliable coal-fired generation fleet and less load-shedding longer term.
The problem though is that nothing about this is short term.
SA has had load-shedding since 2008 and since July 2022 has had precious few days free of load-shedding. More than a year after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the energy action plan to deal with the electricity crisis there is still no clear end date in view.
The pain, also, is not short term. For businesses already teetering, coping with two weeks of stage 6 load-shedding just after a big diesel price increase could be the final nail in the coffin. Weeks of load-shedding at higher stages causes harm to the economy that will hurt for a long time.
On Ramokgopa’s cue, the government has downplayed the crisis by reminding us in the latest statement from the cabinet that load-shedding is temporary. But to trust there will be long-term gain, Eskom must show that the maintenance work it is doing will indeed make the coal-fired power stations more stable and reliable.
At the moment, the coal-fired fleet is so unreliable and prone to breakdowns that the power stations that are supposed to provide a continuous source of baseload power are less reliable than renewables. Last week, Eskom GM for system operations Isabel Fick said variability on the coal fleet far outweighs the variability seen on renewables at this stage.
It is not as if Eskom has not been trying to improve the performance of the coal fleet. But the "massive ramp up" in maintenance since the start of September is only "massive" if compared against, as Ramokgopa likes to do, May this year. But, if compared to the same time last year, Eskom is doing almost the same amount of maintenance.
In May, June and July last year there was about 3,300MW of capacity offline for maintenance, and this year it was roughly the same at 3,500MW. In September last year, maintenance was ramped up to about 5,400MW; this year, at the start of September, maintenance increased to just over 6,000MW, but last week it was down to 4,800MW.
Eskom also does not seem to be spending more on maintenance. The amount spent last year has not yet been made available, but according to Eskom’s financial statements it spent R15bn on planned maintenance in the 2021-22 financial year and R14bn the year before. The utility’s head of generation, Bheki Nxumalo, said about R11bn has been budgeted for maintenance this year.
The proof, however, will not be in the quantity but in the quality of the maintenance work done and whether it leads to a sustained improvement in performance. So far, this has not been the case. Even if you exclude Kusile which suffered a breakdown in October last year, the coal-fired fleet’s performance for the past three months (June, July and August) has deteriorated compared with the same period last year.
However despite all this, perhaps for one last time, we should be patient, because things are different from before. Through the national energy crisis committee (Necom) that was established just over a year ago there is, for the first time, a clear plan to end load-shedding. Now it just needs to be implemented.
There have been some successes, such as the earlier than planned return of units at Kusile that have been out of service, for example. Also, through Necom, the private sector is working alongside Eskom to advise and help plan maintenance at some of the worst-performing power stations.
Feedback is encouraging. To quote one comment: "Eskom is spending a lot of money doing the right things. They are not sitting around talking about what needs to be done, they are actually doing it. You can’t keep doing the right thing and not get results."
Kusile power station near Emalahleni in Mpumalanga. Picture: DENENE ERASMUS