Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa has warned about the possibility of Stage 10. Photo-GCIS

The Minister of Electricity Kgosientsho Ramokgopa believes South Africa needs to make tough decisions to eliminate power outages. One option may be to reconsider the urgency of shutting down Eskom’s old coal-fired power plants.

During his presentation, the minister focused solely on power plants that use fossil fuels and did not discuss the construction of new power sources or the use of renewable energy. These topics will be discussed in more detail at a later time. Ramokgopa noted that the root cause of the load-shedding crisis in South Africa is the insufficient supply of power to meet demand.

Despite having the capacity to generate 48,000MW of electricity, Eskom is currently only able to produce 27,000MW reliably. During summer, the electricity demand can reach up to 32,000MW and up to 37,000MW during winter. As a result, there is currently a deficit of up to 5,000MW during summer and a projected deficit of up to 10,000MW during winter, which is equivalent to stage 10 load shedding.

“If you are sitting at a guaranteed supply of 27,000MW, the difference is about 5,000MW in summer. If this demand is going to go up to about 37,000MW – the worst-case scenario — and we are not able to improve on this 27,000MW, you can see the gap grows from 5,000MW to 10,000MW,” explained Ramokgopa.

Difficult choices.

Although the minister emphasised that renewable energy is the way forward and will constitute a significant portion of the energy mix, he acknowledged that the country is currently facing a crisis, and the majority of the nation’s base load is still reliant on the coal fleet.

This situation presents the country with numerous difficult decisions that require weighing competing priorities against each other.

One instance of this is when Eskom requested exemptions from environmental regulations to bring Kusile units back online more quickly. The group may prioritise generating more power, reducing power outages, and boosting the economy over meeting environmental responsibilities.

Another difficult topic is whether to slow down the country’s transition away from coal and instead concentrate on upgrading older power stations and investing in related assets, such as coal mines, to improve performance.

The country has faced a difficult decision regarding the use of diesel and open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) on multiple occasions. The minister stated that OCGTs were not meant to be used as primary generators and were only intended for energy use about 4% of the time. However, they are currently being utilised for over 11% of electricity generation.

According to Ramokgopa, these generators were used more frequently in the past, from 2013 to 2017, accounting for 20% of the time. Therefore, the options are either to bear the expense of using more diesel or face the negative economic consequences of increased load shedding if the generators cannot be utilised.

Choosing to increase maintenance has its own cost to balance. To enhance performance by increasing maintenance, more units have to be shut down, leading to increased levels of load shedding. To achieve this, the minister said the conversation needs to shift towards determining the level of load shedding that is deemed acceptable for this purpose.

Ramokgopa acknowledged that there has been no conversation about load shedding due to its unacceptability at any level.

He further explained that resolving the issue of load shedding involves three options: increasing generation, reducing demand, or implementing a combination of both.

He plans to present his findings on the coal fleet to the cabinet, which will decide the country’s next steps.

Continued use of coal

Ramokgopa did not explicitly state that South Africa’s coal stations would be kept operational for a longer period, but his speech favoured the use of coal. He suggested that the country’s power shortage issue could be resolved by fixing the operational and technical issues within the coal fleet.

According to him, the coal fleet is confronted with three main problems, namely personnel-related issues, design-related issues, and investment-related issues. He further explained that the investment-related issues are due to the lack of investment in assets by stations and Eskom as a whole, which includes the local coal mines that supply their coal and parts manufacturers.

Without adequate investment, the coal mines will be unable to produce coal that meets the standards necessary to enhance station performance. Similarly, if the manufacturers of parts do not receive the necessary investment, they will be unable to provide the equipment and components required by the stations in the event of a breakdown.

The problems related to design have an impact on both operational issues and the equipment itself. Ramokgopa explained the occurrence of “outage slips” which happen when inadequate planning and equipment problems result in units not being restored as planned, causing essential megawatts to remain offline for an extended period.

The minister addressed a crucial problem related to the employees. The fast decommissioning plan has left many workers at coal power stations feeling hopeless about their future with the company. This has resulted in low morale and a lack of motivation to work efficiently.

He said the coal fleet’s operational shortcomings are preventing approximately 5,400MW of power supply. Additionally, fixing outage slips could result in an additional 1,900MW being restored.

The minister claimed that the country could eliminate power outages if it took challenging measures to access more electricity. He also mentioned that the Kusile Power Station would provide an additional 2,400MW of power by early 2024.

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