Eskom’s Wet Coal Story : Is It Simply a Smokescreen?

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Are the rolling blackouts of last Thursday the beginning of the end for South Africa’s national power grid? At the very least, Eskom owes us a reliable answer to that question while, in all previous explanations for failure, we have had nothing but a web of evasion.

In case its incompetence is irreversible, it’s high time that business is properly informed and able to take appropriate steps.

If memory serves, the latest excuse for the failure is the first one trotted out in 2008 – wet coal. If this is the case, then Eskom admits to having learned nothing from its 2008 failures: surely, a major rainstorm in an area notorious for major rainstorms cannot shut down a country’s economy? Over the past six years Eskom has come up with a series of scarcely credible excuses, apart from wet coal:

– Generally constrained generating capacity – read poor planning of new capacity.

– Lack of capacity margin over demand – directly relates to Eskom’s “gift” of much of its supply margin to BHP Billiton.

– Backlog of planned maintenance – means inept maintenance planning and/or execution.

– Unplanned generator outage – translates to inept plant operation, typified by the Hendrina turbine disintegration during routine testing, or the tripping of three units at Kendal last week.

– High cost of coal – relates to incompetent contracting of coal supplies.

– Aged power stations – misleading as most of Eskom’s capacity is relatively new.

– Poor access to capital to build new capacity – means loss of credit rating and ability to borrow.

– Major delays in completing Medupi – equals poor plant specification and inept project management.

– Excessive power demand – refers to the inability to supply at demand levels of three years ago.

Last month Eskom had four almost simultaneous generator failures, which roughly equates to the capacity of an entire power station as operated by this benighted entity, and the emergency declared last week was initiated by the tripping of three units at Kendal power station.

It is no accident that every major power station operated by Eskom has six boiler/generator units: in simple numbers, this design philosophy “allows” every station to have one unit (17 percent of installed capacity) under planned maintenance at any time, while any unit should be able to run continuously for two years.

That explains the margin of installed capacity over maximum demand, although each outage for planned maintenance should not exceed three months (12 percent outage).

Eskom is apparently happy to operate with an outage of about 25 percent of installed capacity, ignoring its plant design philosophy and far exceeding industry norms, while unplanned outages are accepted as everyday occurrences.

Wet coal might be a problem but it’s a smokescreen for Eskom’s incompetence. What is alarming is its inability to attract and/or retain competent staff while the average pay package well exceeds R500 000 a year.

For those of Eskom’s staff able to read, would the last person to leave his/her cushy employ at Megawatt Park, please turn off the lights, or blow out the candles!

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