RANT: Eskom, inaccurate reporting and the truth behind the problems...

Very, very interesting rant sent in by a Cowboys reader - who wished to remain anonymous for fear of cold showers in the dark and a cold knife in the back.

Thank you, dear Reader. All views appreciated. Especially controversial ones (you gotta love rants - and there are going to be PLENTY of them floating around this subject). What do y'all think?

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INACCURATE REPORTING. This one makes me boil! There is so much crap being talked and written. Even a single article in the paper will usually contain directly conflicting statements.

Examples from Weekend Argus Business Report front page:

Eskom's Failures Threaten to Halt Industry For Weeks

"… But public enterprises minister Alec Irwin, addressing a conference on Friday to discuss the government's plans for dealing with the power crisis said he was not aware that the major platinum and gold mining houses had shut their mines…."

"… Alongside him, Eskom Chief Executive Jacob Maroga who signed the emergency letters, sent out by the utility on Thursday, remained mum about the crisis, unprecedented in Eskom's 85-year history, that was shutting down South Africa's heavy industry."

So Irwin claims that he, the Public Enterprises Minister, was not aware that the government appointed CEO of Eskom, sitting next to him at the time, signed letters to the big mining houses the day before telling them that Eskom could not guarantee to maintain their supplies and that they should take emergency measures to reduce their electricity consumption?

"…Despite the energy troubles, Irwin said that no projects would be frozen and that the government was looking to minimise to economic growth prospects…."

A few paragraphs further on in the same article:

"…Eskom's statements on Thursday, when the utility confirmed that it had not approved any new industrial developments since November last year and that it had put in place a six month moratorium on any new project approvals due to energy shortages…"

"… On Thursday Eskom had to cut back (read shed) 4000 MW of power, the largest cuts ever, to balance out strained systems that are increasingly unable to meet demand…."

Remember that number, 4000 MW, because further along in this article we read:

"The government plans to save between 3000 and 3500MW of power demanded by 2010 through a series of measures announced this week…"

Then of course we read article after article telling us how to save electricity, what is being done, how we will be rationed and fined if we use more than our quota, etc. Most of it is meaningless crap in terms of the crux of the problem. Broadly speaking and in the context of large usage, electricity is not like water. Saving some amount today makes no difference to the amount available for use tomorrow. There are no large "electricity dams", where you can store unused electricity for later consumption. There is no economical way to store electricity in the large quantities needed to keep the wheels of a country turning. Electricity must be manufactured at exactly the same time and in the same quantities that it is being used. This is the crux of the problem. If the total consumption of all the users in the country at 10:00am on a particular day is exactly 38000MW then at 10:00am on that same day the sum total amount being generated in all the country's power stations must be 38000MW. (Actually a little more to make up for system losses but let's not get too technical). If at that moment the total available generating capacity is only 35000MW then we have to shed enough consumers to reduce the total consumption to 35000MW. The fact that thousands of consumers cooked breakfast using gas instead of electricity earlier that day has not helped at all!

So what has gone wrong?

1. In 1998 Eskom planners knew and predicted that existing capacity would be fully utilised by around 2006 -2007. To maintain adequate reserves to meet unexpected breakdowns or routine outages for maintenance we should have begun constructing new power stations almost immediately. Excuses about unexpectedly fast growth are fabrications. Actual growth in consumption has been stable and predictable over the past 10 years and if anything slightly below the rates used for forecasts.

2. Senior Eskom management were replaced by political appointees, many of whom did not have engineering backgrounds or any experience in the electricity supply industry, did not understand the time scales involved in building new capacity, did not understand the complex relationships between electricity supply and demand and did not believe reports submitted by better qualified but more junior employees. Because of this they were too timid in tackling government when it was already clear that an almost unavoidable crisis loomed. Now it is way too late.

3. From the mid-nineties Eskom embarked on an aggressive transformation policy and deliberately shed large numbers of highly qualified and experienced technical personnel to "make room" for transformation. They now face almost insurmountable difficulties in trying to recruit capable technical people at virtually every level in a market where there is a global shortage of such people. This is being made even more difficult by continuing adherence to policies, which make jobs at Eskom unattractive to many candidates due to limited opportunity for advancement for persons who do not help to meet demographic "quotas."

4. Equipment purchased in large quantities and installed in the last high growth period in the sixties, when growth in electricity demand was racing ahead at more than double the present growth rate, has now reached the end of its serviceable life. Most of it is 40 or 50 years old and failure rates are much higher than they should be. These assets should have been replaced steadily over the past 20 years but never were. This is aggravating the capacity problems because it often means that although they can generate the power, they cannot deliver to where it is needed because transmission equipment has failed.

5. The standard of maintenance and the time taken to effect repairs is often unsatisfactory due to inadequate resources. Much work, which used to be done in house, now has to be contracted out to private service providers. These service providers frequently comprise or employ previous Eskom personnel but Preferential Procurement policies are hindering appointment of the best-qualified firms and resulting in much of the work being fragmented with consequent quality control problems.

This assessment is based on personal experience. I have been working with Eskom engineers, many of whom I know personally, for more than 30 years. I have personally seen and experienced the dramatic changes in the age, experience and competence of middle management and technical staff. I regularly get called out to investigate the cause of failure of major transformers and substation equipment as part of my forensic work and more often than not find I am dealing with equipment manufactured and installed in the sixties. What is much more serious is that I frequently have to deal with problems arising directly from the incompetence or inexperience of the staff delegated to handle them.

Don't look forward to abundant and reliable supplies of electricity in you near future because it's not going to happen!

And as a little PS. I was at a meeting at Koeberg power Station. Unit 2 is out for refuelling and "routine" maintenance, which normally takes 10 to 12 weeks but i was told by a very senior employee that this time its going to be substantially longer. He refused to say more.

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  1. It's not mentioned here, but Eskom is talking about a 3-Phase recovery plan. I wonder if they considered the pun because at the moment there is often no (3-phase) power.

  2. Could it be…?

    Andrew Feinstein tells us in his book, “After the Party” that handouts from successful Arms Deal companies helped fund the ANC’s 1999 election campaign. Now we read that an ANC owned company, Chancellor House Holdings, has a direct and significant financial interest (R5,8-billion) in the recently awarded R38,5-billion Eskom contracts for the supply 12 boilers for each of two new power stations. Could this have anything to do with the unexplained reasons for delaying investment in new generation capacity? The next election is in 2009!

    Concerned Engineer



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