Power cuts may return, warns Eskom

With schools and businesses returning to full operation this week, Eskom has warned that the risk of load shedding increases despite a rise in their coal stockpile.

And while the power utility has indicated that they would still need to assess what the situation looks like when everyone returns this week before announcing to the public what the future plans are in terms of power interruptions, another contentious issue surrounding Eskom’s proposed tariff hikes looms.

Public hearings on Eskom’s application to the National Energy Regular of South Africa (Nersa) for a 20% increase are set to begin in Cape Town on January 14.

Meanwhile loadshedding may once again become a reality by mid-January despite assurances by Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan that businesses would return in January to find a more stable environment.

However, Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe said despite all the work done to try to mitigate the situation during the festive season, risks for load shedding would increase in the coming weeks.

“There is a risk that the power system might be constrained again but we have done a lot of maintenance during the festive period and some of the units are back on the system and will help stabilise the power grid,” he said.

“But because we are running an old power system, many of our generating units are over 35 years old, so clearly we are running an old system that needs a lot of maintenance and generally it’s unreliable.

“Plus, we still have some catching up to do in terms of the maintenance, and when we put them together with the demand we expect to see when companies return to work, all these factors are going to put pressure on the system with a high risk of load shedding. But we will continue to asses the situation as we go on.”

Phasiwe said they also managed to increase their coal stockpile during the festive season.

“In terms of coal supply, it is improving. When many people were breaking for the holiday season we had marginally from 24 days. Our intention ultimately is to move up to comfortable levels where we have more than 20 days of coal supply at stations,” he said.

“At the time of closing we were sitting at 28 days, but we will get proper detail as to know where we stand now when management and the primary energy team give us feedback, and this will be on Monday (tomorrow).”

But energy expert Ted Blom questioned the quality of the coal with which Eskom had been bulking up their stockpiles.

“Eskom has recovered some coal, but what they have done because the mining sector has been closed for the last three weeks, is they have bought coal that is laying on dumps and a lot of that is not good,” he said.

Blom called on Eskom to scrap their application for a tariff hike and added that they should not be granted any increases until a full forensic audit had been completed.

“The Eskom board has proved to be dysfunctional and required ministerial intervention on several occasions.

“Although appointed 12 months ago, they have been unable to carve out a credible turnaround plan, despite the use of expensive outside consultants,” he said.

This article was first published in Weekend Argus on 6 January 2019.