Poor-qual­ity coal, Medupi and Kusile’s de­sign flaws, un­planned re­pairs are just some of the crises ad­ding to the al­ready broke util­ity’s woes

CityPress - - Front Page - DEWALD VAN RENSBURG AND ALDI SCHOE­MAN dewald.vrens­burg@city­

Ama­jor court bat­tle is loom­ing against sup­pli­ers that Eskom blames for shoddy work­man­ship at Kusile and Medupi power sta­tions, which con­trib­uted to this week’s load shed­ding. In Eskom’s sights is Mit­subishi Hi­tachi Power Sys­tems Africa, which two se­nior Eskom en­gi­neers told City Press had con­trib­uted to knock­ing off as much as 1 000 megawatts of the power util­ity’s gen­er­a­tion ca­pac­ity this week.

They say the de­sign flaws af­fect­ing Medupi and Kusile – which are set to cost a com­bined R345 bil­lion – all re­late to work con­tracted to the Ja­panese multi­na­tional, and re­sulted in Medupi’s three op­er­a­tional units ei­ther shut­ting down en­tirely or los­ing part of their out­put.

This week, ev­ery sin­gle one of South Africa’s 12 largest and most im­por­tant power sta­tions broke down, ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­nal Eskom doc­u­ment ob­tained by City Press’ sis­ter pub­li­ca­tion, Rap­port.

Eskom’s plant break­downs at old sta­tions are reach­ing cat­a­strophic lev­els, with a record-break­ing 17 371MW – or 38% of Eskom’s total gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity – off­line.

Twelve coal sta­tion units, which pro­vided 2 149MW of power to the grid, are now on “re­serve stor­age” – which ef­fec­tively means they are moth­balled.

Nine were shut down for “eco­nomic rea­sons” and two had to be shut af­ter fail­ures that can­not be fixed right now, Eskom said.

The last time nearly this much Eskom ca­pac­ity was down was in Fe­bru­ary 2015, when 15 500MW was off­line and a na­tional “elec­tric­ity emer­gency” was de­clared.

The in­ter­nal Eskom doc­u­ment states that about a quar­ter of Eskom’s total gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity was off­line on Wed­nes­day be­cause of un­planned main­te­nance and re­pairs. A fur­ther 10% was unavail­able be­cause of planned re­pairs.

At a me­dia brief­ing this week, Eskom chair­per­son Jabu Mabuza said all South Africans had to bear re­spon­si­bil­ity for the lat­est power cri­sis.

“Ei­ther through our peo­ple or our gov­ern­ment … but these are prob­lems that we have all caused. There is a role that we all have to play; share­hold­ers, providers of cap­i­tal, staff, cus­tomers. This is the choice of pain we need to take, go­ing for­ward, to try to put us back in a sus­tain­able way,” he said.

Mabuza has faced a back­lash from frus­trated South Africans, who refuse to ac­cept that they had any­thing to do with years of mis­man­age­ment and a lack of main­te­nance at the elec­tric­ity monopoly.

At the same brief­ing, Pub­lic En­ter­prises Minister Pravin Gord­han said Eskom was do­ing its ut­most to pre­vent power cuts over the fes­tive sea­son.

But the in­ter­nal Eskom doc­u­ment states that, while many of the prob­lems can be fixed by the end of De­cem­ber, it may take until Jan­uary 2021 to do the nec­es­sary re­pairs.


Two se­nior en­gi­neer­ing sources at Eskom told City Press this week that a re­heater tem­per­a­ture con­trol sys­tem at­tached to the boil­ers at Medupi is fail­ing to con­trol the heat of “super-heated” steam cir­cu­lat­ing be­tween the boiler and the tur­bine that pro­duces elec­tric­ity. This leads to over­heat­ing, which can cause an en­tire unit to trip and a 480MW loss to the sys­tem, said one. Eskom now has to in­creas­ingly “give less fire” and dial down Medupi to pre­vent it from over­heat­ing. An­other ma­jor de­sign flaw at Medupi – and, by ex­ten­sion, at the iden­ti­cal Kusile – is the fab­ric filter that is meant to catch fine ash in the steam fun­nelled out of the gi­ant smoke­stacks.

“It is just very in­ef­fi­cient,” said the source.

“It doesn’t catch enough ash, and then it breaks. This leads to high amounts of ash be­ing let out of the sta­tion, which puts Eskom in breach of its li­cence con­di­tions, which in­clude emis­sion lim­its.

“This also forces Eskom to dial down Medupi while the filter gets fixed.”

The third prob­lem is the grinder that pul­verises coal into a fine pow­der be­fore it is burnt. Each of the 480MW units has a set of grinders feed­ing it, but they are erod­ing very quickly, said the source.

This again leads to the unit hav­ing to be shut down pe­ri­od­i­cally so the worn-down parts can be re­placed. While all new power sta­tions have flaws that are re­paired later, these flaws at Medupi and Kusile are far more ex­ten­sive than nor­mal, said the source.

“Medupi’s three op­er­a­tional units should pro­duce about 2 150MW (al­most 5% of Eskom’s total 47 000MW in­stalled ca­pac­ity). Re­cently, we lost 1 000MW of that. That is the ex­treme case.

“I do not know what it is go­ing to cost to fix, but it will be ex­pen­sive.”

Eskom’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, Jan Ober­holzer, said this week that the load losses at Medupi and Kusile were “not neg­li­gi­ble”, and the ques­tion was who would now pay to fix them.

An­other en­gi­neer said the R1.5 bil­lion Eskom re­cently al­lo­cated to fix­ing de­sign prob­lems at Medupi and Kusile “will def­i­nitely not cover it all” and will be used while Eskom fights its con­trac­tors to make them pay in­stead.

“A big court bat­tle is com­ing,” he said.


Gord­han said this week that foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tions showed that orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers at Medupi did a “sub­stan­dard job”.

He men­tioned Mit­subishi Hi­tachi Power Sys­tems Africa by name three times in the course of the brief­ing.

“There will be con­se­quences for sub­stan­dard work and ex­tra costs,” said Gord­han.

Mit­subishi Hi­tachi Power Sys­tems Africa has, as its BEE part­ner, the ANC’s in­vest­ment ve­hi­cle, Chan­cel­lor House Hold­ings.

A spokesper­son for the com­pany, Ni­co­las Meyer, told City Press yes­ter­day that it had a pol­icy “not to com­ment on these types of is­sues”.

Eskom chief ex­ec­u­tive Phaka­mani Hadebe said the cost of build­ing Medupi had tripled from ini­tial es­ti­mates and that there was also ev­i­dence of col­lu­sion by Eskom employees to in­flate costs.

Medupi, si­t­u­ated in Lim­popo, has pre­vi­ously seen dis­putes with Mit­subishi Hi­tachi Power Sys­tems Africa about shoddy weld­ing on its gi­ant boil­ers, as well as an ap­par­ent mis­match be­tween com­po­nents that Eskom or­dered from dif­fer­ent sup­pli­ers.

Eskom has be­gun to ad­mit that both Medupi and Kusile are rid­dled with fun­da­men­tal prob­lems that will deny the coun­try the full ben­e­fit of their stated ca­pac­ity of 4 800MW each when com­pleted.

With the rest of Eskom’s fleet of age­ing sta­tions this week suf­fer­ing record break­downs, Medupi and Kusile were meant to pull the coun­try out of its elec­tric­ity cri­sis. But now Eskom es­ti­mates it will take up to five years to fix them.

A se­nior Eskom en­gi­neer told City Press that fix­ing any one unit will also mean tak­ing it off­line for months.


Ad­ding to the power short­age is Eskom’s in­abil­ity to buy enough diesel to run its emer­gency-peak­ing plants at full ca­pac­ity.

An­other prob­lem is that the trans­mis­sion line be­tween South Africa and Mozam­bique’s Ca­hora Bassa hy­dro­elec­tric dam is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dif­fi­cul­ties.

Deon Reyneke, the deputy gen­eral sec­re­tary of trade union Sol­i­dar­ity, also spoke about a lack of ba­sic main­te­nance at power sta­tions.

This in­cludes the lack of proper mon­i­tor­ing of oil and pres­sure lev­els which, when they get too high, cause the sta­tions to shut down au­to­mat­i­cally to pre­vent fur­ther dam­age.

In­de­pen­dent power sta­tion ex­pert Ted Blom said yet more prob­lems are caused by poor-qual­ity coal.

For ex­am­ple, at Arnot power sta­tion in Mpumalanga, an en­tire 380MW unit had to be shut down in or­der to re­move clinker from the boiler.

“Clinker forms when the alu­minium con­tent of the coal is too high,” said Blom.

“It melts and forms on the sides of the boiler. It has to be knocked off with a ham­mer, but the pipes that are at­tached to the boiler are very sen­si­tive.”

The unit has to be com­pletely shut down for re­pairs be­cause the boil­ers are very hot. It can take a few days for the boiler to cool down suf­fi­ciently so that the clinker can be removed.


Eskom is bor­row­ing money to ser­vice its debts. In its re­cent fi­nan­cial re­sults cov­er­ing the six months to end-Septem­ber, Eskom re­ported spend­ing R45 bil­lion on pay­ing back loans and in­ter­est on loans, while it had bor­rowed a new R34 bil­lion to main­tain its cash lev­els.

Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties owe Eskom at least

R27 bil­lion in un­paid elec­tric­ity, while res­i­dents of Soweto have a debt of R15 bil­lion due to the power util­ity.

Eskom is now lob­by­ing for a R100 bil­lion gov­ern­ment bailout to ease its R420 bil­lion debt bur­den.

It is not clear what form this might take, and Gord­han said this week that there would be an up­date early next year.

Ac­cord­ing to the power util­ity’s lat­est ap­pli­ca­tion for a 15% tariff in­crease sub­mit­ted in Oc­to­ber, its main­te­nance costs for 2018/19 stand at R16.5 bil­lion.

When the cur­rent Eskom lead­er­ship was ap­pointed this year, their first plan was to con­vince the Pub­lic In­vest­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (PIC), the Devel­op­ment Bank of South­ern Africa and the In­dus­trial Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion to con­vert R100 bil­lion of their ex­ist­ing Eskom loans into shares.

This semi-pri­vati­sa­tion was a long shot be­cause it would be very dif­fi­cult for the PIC to jus­tify swap­ping bonds with pre­de­ter­mined in­ter­est pay­ments and re­pay­ment dates for shares of ques­tion­able value and no prospect of div­i­dends any time soon.

The pub­lic util­ity’s profit for the six months was R921 mil­lion, com­pared with R8.8 bil­lion in the com­pa­ra­ble same six months last year.

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