No black­outs

Jan­uary 2008 won’t be re­peated but still tough times ahead

Finweek English Edition - - INSIGHT - AN­DREW KENNY arkenny40@ab­samail.co.za

IN JAN­UARY 2008 heavy rain fell on coal mines and coal-pow­ered sta­tions in Mpumu­langa, caus­ing a mas­sive power black­out that shut down a good part of South Africa’s econ­omy, in­clud­ing its gold mines. The rain has be­gun fall­ing again and there have been flood warn­ings. Will we see a sim­i­lar black­out now? The an­swer is no. And there are three im­por­tant rea­sons why. How­ever, we do suf­fer from an acute short­age of gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity and over the next two years there will be load­shed­ding.

SA gets 92% of its elec­tric­ity from coal and most of that comes from power sta­tions in Mpumu­langa, where, in Jan­uary 2008, the rain flooded open­cast coal mines and turned the low stock­piles at power sta­tions into slush. The slush blocked up the mills and noz­zles at the sta­tions and shut them down. The first rea­son for this not hap­pen­ing again, is that SA now has much bet­ter stock­piles.

In 2008 – for id­i­otic fi­nan­cial and ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons – Eskom had re­duced the

Eskom’s se­nior man­age­ment is much im­proved since 2008. In­stead of dream­ers who de­nied prob­lems, Eskom now has prac­ti­cal men fac­ing prob­lems head-on

stock­piles to a few days. More­over, the coal was of un­cer­tain qual­ity. Cur­rent stock­piles av­er­age 41 days and there’s been a ma­jor ef­fort to ob­tain more re­li­able sup­plies. Rain is al­ways a prob­lem, but with de­cent stock­piles you can draw the drier coal from the top and greatly re­duce its ef­fect. If the mine is flooded, the power sta­tion still has over a month of sup­ply.

The sec­ond rea­son is that Eskom has built up its emer­gency ca­pac­ity. When Eskom fi­nally re­alised it had run out of power, it built the quick­est, cheap­est units it could, which are gas tur­bines. (“Gas tur­bine” refers to the ther­mo­dy­namic cy­cle rather than the fuel. These ma­chines are like jet en­gines and can run on paraf­fin, gas or diesel.) They were built in the Western Cape at At­lantis and Mos­sel Bay. They have low cap­i­tal costs but ex­tremely high fuel costs, us­ing diesel. Eskom avoids run­ning them when pos­si­ble. How­ever, they have a com­bined ca­pac­ity of 2 100MW (Koe­berg’s ca­pac­ity is 1 800MW) and are very re­li­able. They’re there if we need them.

The third rea­son is that Eskom’s se­nior man­age­ment is much im­proved since 2008. In­stead of dream­ers who de­nied prob­lems, Eskom now has prac­ti­cal men fac­ing prob­lems head-on. Nonethe­less, the prob­lem of sup­ply re­mains grave. Eskom’s max­i­mum de­mand in 2010 was 36 664MW and its

ca­pac­ity is around 41 000MW. That gives it a re­serve mar­gin of 11% – be­low the 15% re­quired. Fur­ther­more, that ca­pac­ity in­cludes pumped stor­age, hy­dro, gas tur­bines and some rick­ety old coal-pow­ered sta­tions, none of which can pro­vide re­li­able baseload power.

If SA’s econ­omy grows at a mod­est 3%, elec­tric­ity de­mand will do the same – which means we’ll need 1 100MW of new ca­pac­ity ev­ery year. But the ear­li­est we can ex­pect a new power unit pro­duc­ing is in De­cem­ber next year from the Medupi coalpow­ered sta­tion, which will have six units of 800MW each built at in­ter­vals of eight months. Kusile, the sec­ond new coal-fired power sta­tion (the same size) will fol­low just over a year later.

Be­fore that and af­ter that there’s noth­ing, apart from a pumped stor­age scheme of 1 332MW and a wind farm of 50MW.

Wind tur­bines are es­sen­tially use­less as their power is so un­re­li­able. In Bri­tain – with bet­ter wind con­di­tions than SA – their plen­ti­ful wind tur­bines failed to pro­vide elec­tric­ity when it was most needed, in the bit­ter cold of this win­ter. In­deed, some of them – cold and still, gen­er­at­ing noth­ing – ac­tu­ally con­sumed elec­tric­ity to heat them to pre­vent them freez­ing. How­ever, pol­i­tics and ide­ol­ogy will prob­a­bly force SA to build these ex­tremely ex­pen­sive white ele­phants.

Mean­while, in the real world of elec­tric­ity sup­ply, Unit 1 at Koe­berg nu­clear power sta­tion is out of ac­tion due to a mi­nor but un­for­tu­nate mishap. The unit was down for a re­fu­elling out­age and a mod­i­fi­ca­tion to its low pres­sure tur­bines (which will give it an ex­tra 32MW of free power). When it came up again, the ra­di­a­tion de­tec­tors spot­ted a leak­ing fuel el­e­ment. Such leaks hap­pen from time to time with old fuel, rather like tube leaks on an old boiler.

How­ever, this was with new fuel and it looks like a man­u­fac­tur­ing fault from the sup­plier. No doubt Eskom will have some­thing to say to them. Re­plac­ing a leak­ing el­e­ment is rou­tine but time-con­sum­ing and the unit will not be up and run­ning be­fore the last week of Jan­uary.

Af­ter the world fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008, SA’s econ­omy is re­cov­er­ing and elec­tric­ity de­mand has re­turned to that be­fore the cri­sis. Eskom is feel­ing the strain. There isn’t go­ing to be a re­peat of the fi­asco of Jan­uary 2008 but there are tough times ahead.

KOE­BERG NU­CLEAR POWER STA­TION

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