By Lwazi Ntombela
“At the heart of an electricity utility such as Eskom is the responsibility for supplying the electricity on which modern society depends.”
On October 8, 2020 at the Joburg Indaba, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter presented his five-point turnaround strategy, which was meant to drastically reduce the risk of loadshedding by September 2021 and to reduce the power utility’s debt.
This article will discuss the functions and performance of generation, transmission and distribution at Eskom under De Ruyter’s tenure, and how he lacks the technical skills and acumen to oversee such an entity.
Eskom has the responsibility of generating electricity through either the burning of fossil fuels, nuclear or renewable technologies.
Its generation units have been performing at suboptimal levels for a number of years, but during the 2021 financial year period the division experienced its worst year with the generation units tripping a record 697 times.
By the end of March, the energy availability factor (EAF) of the coal fleet had sunk to 55.5 percent, meaning almost half of it, on average, was unable to dispatch energy at any one time. The country also experienced a record number of 65 load shedding days over the year.
According to Eskom’s latest system adequacy report, the utility recorded an average EAF of about 59 percent across the first 21 weeks of 2022. That compares to a figure of about 62 percent in 2021.The year before that, Eskom had an EAF of 65 percent.
These EAF figures show a continuing decline in generating capacity in the past few years under De Ruyter and Jan Oberholzer, the chief operating officer at Eskom, and the whole Eskom executive.
At the same time, Eskom has also seen dispatchable generation reduce from 224 202GWh in 2018 to 210 022GWh in 2021. From January 1, 2018, to May 29, 2018, the utility sent out 90 641GWh, compared to just 84 871GWh for the year-to-date.
By all available metrics Eskom is set to experience more generation unit breakdowns, which will lead to continued load shedding. De Ruyter has not been able to secure the generation of electricity by Eskom and has surrendered his responsibilities to his competitors in the form of Independent Power Producers.
Transmission remains one of the key components in the electricity value chain. The transmission system’s primary role is to transport electricity in bulk from various generating sources to load centres throughout South Africa and into the Southern African Development Community region.
From there, Eskom's distribution networks, the metros and municipalities deliver electricity to individual households and end users.
Transmission comprises the 28 000km of high voltage lines that transport electricity at high voltage levels (such as 400kV or 765kV) to cities and towns. There, it branches out to 325 000km of lower-voltage lines that distribute electricity to homes and businesses.
In comparison, New Zealand has 150 000km for a 10th of South Africa’s population and the UK has more than 800 000km. De Ruyter has failed to add any meaningful transmission lines to the grid, which is of paramount importance if Eskom is to service demand. The transmission development plan has been tabled, but it has many shortcomings and is focused on supporting Independent Power producers rather than speaking to transmitting electricity from Eskom power plants.
Distribution refers to the final stage of the electrical grid which distributes electricity to homes, industry, and other end users. Distribution both delivers the electric power to the grid and, once delivered, it also reduces power to safe customer-usable levels.
The power level is reduced by step-down transformers, which lower the voltage of the electricity from dangerous levels (over 1 kV) to safer levels (100 - 400V). The entire distribution grid includes lines, poles, transformers, and switching and protection circuits that deliver safe electrical power. The majority of the failures experienced within the distribution department of Eskom are due to transformer failures.
Eskom has been plagued with this crisis for many years and whether the lead cause is illegal connections, thermal stress on transformer insulation, humidity in oil, lightning strikes or lack of maintenance, De Ruyter and his leadership collective have failed dismally at arresting the situation.
De Ruyter has been at the power utility for more than two years and there have not been any improvements, barring the reduction of debt due to the mass retrenchment of more than 2 000 employees, which allowed Eskom to continue servicing its debt.
Lwazi Ntombela is the vice-president and head of the Business South African Youth Economic Council (Sayec).