Keeping the lights on does not require magic, just people doing their jobs
When Eskom escalated its load-shedding warning from stage 2 to stage 4 last Saturday, it attributed this to damage caused by Cyclone Idai to the power lines that bring SA electricity from the Cahora Bassa hydroelectric scheme in Mozambique, which has an output of just over 1,000MW.
But, as energy expert Ted Blom told one radio station, the numbers did not add up. Peak demand after hours and over weekends drops to just under 22,000MW. At stage 4, Eskom demands savings of 4,000MW. That means when Eskom moved to stage 4 that weekend, it only had 18,000MW of installed capacity in operation; this from a fleet of power stations that theoretically can generate 46,000MW. That means even if Cahora Bassa had been supplying power, Eskom would still have declared at least stage 3 load-shedding.
The cat was only let out of the bag in subsequent explanations. There were boiler tube leaks in seven generating units, which caught Eskom completely by surprise. Bad coal has been cited as the reason for the leaks. The power utility has neglected maintenance of the boilers for a number of years. Media reports suggest that the National Treasury rejected an attempt by Eskom to extend the boiler maintenance contract because of price concerns.
There it is; endemic corruption that was and is still prevalent at Eskom is responsible for all of us having our electricity cut off for hours on end. Load-shedding does not only cause frustration and inconvenience, it eats away at business confidence, and is especially detrimental to smaller businesses that cannot afford generators and other alternative power sources.
As a Joburg business owner told a talk radio station on Friday, his meat supply operation is losing customers because his cold storage is compromised. This is the real tragedy of load-shedding; small businesses cannot afford it, the economy cannot afford it.
Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, Eskom board chair Jabu Mabuza and CEO Phakamani Hadebe addressed a media briefing this week. They understand our frustration, they have identified the source of the problem but they can't give us definitive answers as to when load-shedding will end. They don't have a "magic formula" to end it. They asked South Africans to be patient.
But South Africans are out of patience. Eskom is a deeply indebted behemoth, a strain on our national resources and a drain on our national psyche. It sits with a staggering R419bn of debt accumulated mainly through attempts to bring the coal-fired power stations Kusile and Medupi back into operation.
This mega project was mismanaged to a point where no-one at Eskom or in the government can say for certain when these power stations will be completed or fully integrated into the grid. Coal might be in abundance in this country, but its emissions are setting us back in terms of our climate change commitments. But with trade unions opposing renewable energy provided by independent power producers (IPPs) - even though the cost of such clean energy has drastically gone down - it seems we will be stuck with coal for the foreseeable future.
Progressive cities such as Cape Town are fighting to be allowed to procure power directly from IPPs, which would reduce the burden on the national grid. Bold policy and legislative action are required to make this a reality, but this government is not renowned for such decisiveness.
At peak demand, Eskom turns on its open-cycle gas turbines, which gobble diesel at an alarming rate. Firing up these turbines is literally a cash-burning exercise, with Eskom spending a staggering R1bn a day to keep them burning.
This is money Eskom does not have, and that it has to borrow, and that every taxpayer has to help repay. Gordhan is wrong, South Africans are not expecting a magic formula to fix load-shedding, we just want people to do their jobs.