South Africa: The Collapse of Old King Coal

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In 2017, Eskom’s energy planning office looked out at the horizon and saw a problem: by 2022, the country would have too much electricity.

Coal contracts would still need to be honoured, power station employees would need to be paid, but there would be no one to buy electricity from the eight gigawatts (8GW) of surplus capacity we would have on the grid.

Various ideas were put forward to solve this dilemma of over-abundance: Meridian Economics suggested closing old power plants, PwC suggested cutting maintenance and running the stations at low capacity, while Eskom negotiated deals to sell power to neighbouring countries.

But far from Megawatt Park, out in Mpumalanga’s coal fields, the tide was turning. In October 2017, breakdowns – or unplanned capacity loss factor (UCLF) in technical lingo – hit the 20% mark at Arnot, Tutuka and Medupi, and 40% at Camden and Duvha.

And although each station would rebound to a degree, a trend was emerging: the coal fleet was failing.

It is now 2022, and there is no sign of the 8GW surplus. Instead, we have a 6GW shortfall, leading to stage 6 load shedding and the threat of far worse if we do not urgently build new capacity.

This story is about how we got it wrong: how we ignored what was happening to the coal fleet, clung to unrealistic projections, and walked into an energy crisis of our own making. It is also a warning that our plan to solve the energy crisis is based, in part, on ignoring these past failures and doing exactly what we have done before.

How bad is it out there?

In July this year, when Eskom chief executive André de Ruyter wanted to show the president and his cabinet how bad things were, he took them to Tutuka power station near Standerton.

Built in 1985, Tutuka is one of the newer and bigger power stations in Eskom’s fleet. With a capacity of 3.5GW, it can theoretically provide enough electricity for Cape Town.

But Tutuka is also a wreck. As of July, it was running less than 30% of the time, crime syndicates have stripped it of spares and fuel, and in contravention of its operating licence it continues to billow out pollutants over surrounding communities.

“[T]he President has been to power plants in Japan, he’s been to power plants in China, so he knows what a good plant looks like,” De Ruyter told us when we interviewed him in July. “And I think when he saw what Tutuka looked like, he understood that the Potemkin village that had be portrayed to him – a very pleasing picture was presented, you know, ‘Sure, we can get to an EAF 75%’ – but when he saw what the true state of the plant was, then I think he said ‘okay, now we need some drastic interventions.'”

EAF, or energy availability factor, is a measure of the time that a power plant is available to generate electricity. Planned maintenance (PCFL) eats into that time, as do unplanned breakdowns (UCLF).

In the 1990s, Eskom executives had set a target of “90:7:3”, which meant that power plants should be available 90% of the time, with 7% allocated for maintenance and 3% for breakdowns. In 2013, that was replaced with the more modest 80:10:10 strategy. Now, we are now lucky if we achieve 60% energy availability factor (EAF).

As part of his plan to turn around the economy, Ramaphosa wants Eskom’s power stations to achieve an EAF of 70%. In July, Tutuka had an EAF of 29%.

That puts Tutuka on par with solar and wind, which are generally able to generate power between 25% (solar) and 36% (wind) of the time. But while Eskom can predict with a high degree of certainty whether there will be sun in the Northern Cape tomorrow and wind in the Eastern Cape, Tutuka’s breakdowns are far less certain.

Days after Ramaphosa’s trip to Tutuka in July, he announced a new emergency energy plan to “open the floodgates to private investment”, in De Ruyter’s words. The plan is to add at least 15GW of new power generation capacity to the grid, mostly from solar and wind, as soon as possible.

But the plan also includes a second objective: “Improve the performance of Eskom’s existing power stations”. The problem is that this has been the plan for years, and despite pouring billions into maintenance at stations like Tutuka, Eskom has been unable to reverse the coal fleet’s stubborn decline.

This is a small extract from a very in depth and well researched article written by investigative journalist, Susan Comrie from amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism. 

Read more on this exclusive story from the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism HERE


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