South Africa’s blackout crisis ‘solved’, says Eskom

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The crisis at South African state-owned company Eskom, which has caused power outages for most of the last decade, has been “solved”, according to the company’s president.

“Structurally we have changed the capacity of Eskom’s fleet of power stations,” Mteto Nyati told the Financial Times in an interview. The company’s recovery plan was still a year away from being executed, but he said “the chances of further load shedding are small.”

Load shedding, as South Africa’s frequent blackouts are known, has become a symbol of economic mismanagement by the ruling African National Congress, costing the country almost R900 million for every day the blackouts are worse.

But the comments from its board boss – made just days before the most consequential election since the first post-apartheid vote in 1994 – are likely to be met with skepticism among some Eskom customers who remain suspicious of the company’s ability to achieve.

The opposition Democratic Alliance has accused the ANC of “putting pressure on Eskom to burn more diesel and keep the lights on at all costs” ahead of the May 29 election in which most polls show the ruling party will lose its majority. Julius Malema, leader of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, has said the blackouts will return after the vote.

But Nyati, an engineer who was chief executive of MTN South Africa, denies that the government was leaning on Eskom. “No politician has ever asked us to do something like this,” he said. “In February, we announced load shedding during the president’s state of the nation address and people were angry, but we said we had to do the right thing for Eskom.”

Eskom Mteto Nyati Chair,
Mteto Nyati denied that the government was relying on Eskom ©James Oatway/Reuters

Critics should wait and see what happened after the vote, he added, but when “there is still no load shedding after the election, there will probably be another conspiracy theory, because people just don’t want to accept that we have fixed Eskom.”

Last weekend, Eskom surpassed the psychological barrier of 50 days without imposing blackouts, but critics suspected this was achieved by spending billions of rands on diesel to power gas turbines and close the electricity gap.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has described those talks as a “political strategy” that “is not confirmed by the facts.”

Eskom data shows its spending on diesel has fallen sharply: it spent R53 million burning diesel from May 1 to 12, compared to R1.14 billion in the same period last year. The state company’s power availability factor, a crucial metric used to measure how much electrical capacity can be deployed on the grid, has also increased, from 50.8 percent last April to 70 percent on May 12.

Nyati said his board, which was formed 18 months ago, had been able to achieve something its predecessors had not achieved in more than a decade, mainly by focusing on underperforming coal-fired power plants.

“We had a coal fleet that had not been maintained for a long time, so it became unreliable. And the only way to solve it is to systematically go to each power plant and repair the machines. And make sure the people who do that know what they are doing.”

Nearly three-quarters of the problems emanated from six of its 14 coal-fired plants, it added, so it had reviewed the management of those facilities and focused on them.

“The reason these stations were not being maintained is because of lack of discipline as people were not following standard operating procedures. It seems basic, but it’s just that,” Nyati said.

James Mackay, chief executive of the South African Energy Council, agreed with Nyati’s optimistic assessment and expressed confidence that load shedding would end next year. “There is no going back… The maintenance recovery plan is working,” he said.

He added: “After more than 10 years of economic decline, it is entirely justifiable to be skeptical. “It has taken time to see the benefits and there are still many challenges ahead, but the right things have been done.”

Frans Cronje, president of the non-profit Social Research Foundation, said the departure of André de Ruyter, who resigned as Eskom chief executive a year ago, had given the board the space to address the issue. .

“De Ruyter’s departure allowed the cabinet to develop common sense to support coal station managers,” he said. The ANC was a pragmatic party that would adapt to survive, Cronje said, and as load shedding had become an electoral problem, the ANC finally found a way to solve it.

De Ruyter said the fixes implemented while he ran the company were in part due to facilitating load shedding. “Much of the maintenance started when I was there has already been completed. “Those projects take 18 months to plan and another year to execute,” he stated.

He also said the biggest challenge for Eskom was whether it could sustainably adapt to a future where renewable energy was the dominant source. The question, he said, is whether “Eskom will spend money on expanding the grid or extending the life of old coal-fired power stations.”

Video: Eskom: how corruption and crime turned out the lights in South Africa | FT Movie