South Africa’s power utility Eskom aims to limit unplanned breakdowns during winter

By Elena Kachkova in Johannesburg April 12, 2024

South Africa’s state-owned electricity utility Eskom is poised to unveil its winter outlook by the end of April but cautions that nationally imposed power outages, called load shedding locally, remain a possibility.

The announcement came during a briefing on April 9 on the implementation of the Energy Action Plan (EAP), where Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa highlighted recent improvements in the power system, resulting in a nearly two-week reprieve from load shedding.

Eskom attributed this respite to sustained generation capacity, sufficient emergency reserves, and reduced Easter weekend demand. The utility also underscored the efficiency of its maintenance regime, with more units returning to service for longer durations, reports News24.

Speaking about the approaching winter months, Eric Shunmagum, Eskom's senior manager in the group executive generation office, said that the outlook is still in the process of approval. It is based on three scenarios, one of which aims to limit planned maintenance to around 3,000 MW and unplanned breakdowns to 14,000 MW.

Reducing unplanned breakdowns would give the power utility “leeway”, especially during winter months of higher demand, Shunmagum said. “We believe with that scenario we should be in a good position in terms of load shedding. There would be days, but as was seen in previous outlook plans, we plan on three scenarios.”

Comparatively, planned maintenance in summer hit a peak from December 2023 through January 2024, with roughly 9,000 MW or 18% of generation capacity taken offline.

When asked about Eskom’s reliance on open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs), which run on diesel to stave off load shedding, Shunmagum noted that this went over budget. But he noted that without emergency generation, the cost to the economy would have been far worse.

According to Shunmagum, the budget for diesel in the coming year was significantly lower than last year’s at ZAR30bn ($159.3mn).

In the upcoming months, Eskom anticipates the return to service of Medupi power station’s unit 4, offline since the explosion three years ago, adding 800 MW of generation capacity. Also, unit 2 at Koeberg nuclear power plant (NPP) is scheduled to come back online in September after planned maintenance and will contribute roughly 900 MW.

Additionally, the final unit at Kusile power station is expected to be commissioned by September as well and will add another 800 MW. Overall, these returns will add 2,583 MW of generation capacity in the next five months, according to the minister.

However, even with more units coming onstream leading to the winter period, Ramokgopa did not rule out load shedding. “I accept there is going to be a momentary setback given the nature of these machines … It is almost a given that we are going to encounter a setback,” he said.

The minister also stated that there were healthy levels of coal stockpiles, and that Eskom has accounted for the prospect of wet conditions, something that has previously been an issue.

“The issue of wet coal should be something of the past,” he was quoted by News24 as saying.

Ramokgopa further reiterated that the country remains committed to its National Determined Contributions (NDC) to limit carbon emissions to a range between 350 - 420 megatonnes.

However, he pointed out that the decommissioning of some end-of-life coal-fired power stations that continue to contribute to high levels of air pollution must be delayed to avert escalating the energy availability crisis.

The minister noted that relying on these assets while new generation capacity was being built was one of the “extraordinary measures” required amid an energy crisis, writes News24.

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