When the lockdown stops, power cuts will start again

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South Africa could be facing a dark and cold winter.

SA is hurtling towards new power cuts, due to hit the country in May.

This is despite Eskom conducting maintenance on its ageing power stations during a decline in demand in the lockdown.

Energy analysts said that while the current decline in demand greatly helped Eskom, it had allowed for only low-level and routine repairs.

Lockdowns in countries that make boilers, turbines and controls systems – essential for power plants – mean Eskom has battled to secure vital components especially for its Medupi and Kusile power plants. Bottlenecks at ports have added to the delays.

The global lockdowns have also prevented Eskom from bringing in specialised engineers to work on the equipment.

Eskom’s power generation head, Bheki Nxumalo, told the Sunday Times that power cuts were “most likely to resume not long after the national lockdown is lifted during May” and continue until August 2021.

In December, Eskom implemented stage 6 power cuts. According to energy analysts, every hour of every stage of power cuts costs the economy between R50m and R100m.

Eskom spokesperson Sikonathi Mant-shantsha said the maintenance that had been done would not make a huge difference to supply.

“It’s not the deep-cycle maintenance that needs to take place. The maintenance needed is the kind where massive boiler and turbine components are replaced, especially at Kusile and Medupi power stations.

“That cannot happen because the borders are shut and supplies and specialists, who are behind the design and manufacturing of these parts, cannot be brought into the country.”

He said that “in reality there are power stations which are badly damaged and will need deep repair interventions and will not suddenly be able to meet demand”.

“The major [obstacle] to fully generate power lies with the new power stations which were built.”

He said with plans to lift the lockdown in phases, it was possible that power cuts might occur within weeks of the lockdown being lifted.

“With heavy industry and mines expected to come online rapidly, the demand for power will be immense.”

He said recent maintenance had helped reduce the risk of power cuts but that these could not be ruled out.

“It’s going to be a tough balancing act.”

The expected power demand has led to the government adjusting strict Covid-19 regulations to unclog the ports where the critical components for power stations have arrived.

The minister of trade & industry, Ebrahim Patel, said improvements were being made to ease the flow of imported supplies for critical services.

“Covid-19 regulations have been amended to ensure that imports, which were getting clogged up at ports, are cleared quickly,” he said.

Nxumalo said the drop in electricity demand allowed Eskom to perform urgent, short-term maintenance.

He said deep maintenance would continue as planned after the lockdown. The deep maintenance would continue until August 2021.

“Load-shedding is most likely to resume not long after the national lockdown is lifted during May.

“That’s because Eskom expects demand for electricity to rise to more or less the same levels it was at before the lockdown,” said Nxumalo.

“Only when the design defects at the Medupi and Kusile power stations have been corrected are we most likely to see the end of load-shedding.

“We are in the process of placing contracts and ordering and importing major components required for the services, and bringing in the required skills from outside SA, which include specialists required to work on turbine and boiler components, which are manufactured overseas.”

He said Eskom was calculating what the country’s power demand would be after lockdown.

Nxumalo said it was prudent to go back to conducting maintenance as directed by the original equipment manufacturers (OEMS).

“Eskom will strictly adhere to OEMS recommendations and conduct maintenance, something we have not always done in the past.”

University of Johannesburg energy economist Professor Johane Dikgang said the planned power cuts would occur at the worst possible time.

“Load-shedding will exacerbate the country’s already precarious economic situation,” he said.

“Businesses have already been wiped out. This will be the kiss of death for those who have barely managed to survive the lockdown.”

Energy analyst Clyde Mallinson said the state of SA’s power grid should, like Covid-19, have been declared a national disaster.

Before the Covid-19 lockdown, Eskom was battling to maintain its coal fleet at 55% capacity, he said.

“When the fleet was at 55% capacity we were at stage 2 load-shedding. Economic power modelling shows that for every hour of every stage of load-shedding the economy loses between R50m and R100m.

“With stage 2 load-shedding for a day, the economy loses between R2bn and R4bn. If the load-shedding rises beyond that now we will be in an even more dire situation than before the lockdown.”

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