Carol Paton Writer at Large

Eskom slashed spending on maintenance over the past four years by almost 50%, Eskom officials told members of parliament on Wednesday.

The performance of Eskom’s coal plants has been plummeting,  leading to a highly constrained system and resulting in the first round of load-shedding since 2016 on Sunday.

Acting CFO Calib Cassim told the portfolio committee on public enterprises that capital spending on Eskom’s existing assets was R30bn in 2014 but fell to R17bn by 2018. Eskom CEO Phakamani Hadebe said that Eskom “had not managed maintenance in the way we should have”.

Eskom is attempting to manage its financial problems by cutting capital expenditure. The company is crippled by debt of some R350bn and in the past financial year was unable to service its debt from operational revenue. New figures on state guarantees presented by Cassim show that Eskom has drawn down or committed all but R14bn of its government guarantees of R350bn.

The effect of the decline in spending on maintenance has been felt in Eskom’s plant efficiency this year, with the energy availability factor — that is, the amount of its capacity available for dispatch, on average, over the year — falling from 79% in 2017 to 74% for the year to date, due to unplanned outages.

COO Jan Oberholzer said he expected that this would decline further by the end of the year. Eskom needs an 80% energy availability factor for the system to run without risk. It will take a full two years for Eskom to restore its plants to an acceptable level of performance, Oberholzer said.

“Its not a quick fix; it’s a process, but we are very optimistic that we will turn it around,” he said, adding that he did not expect any more load-shedding in the foreseeable future.

Sunday’s load-shedding was brought about by high temperatures during the week, which led to higher-than-normal electricity usage. This resulted in Eskom not having pumped storage capacity to start the next week and the decision was taken to load-shed on Sunday rather than start the week with low capacity. Eskom was also short of diesel over the weekend.

Oberholzer said that entire units at four power stations are on “long-term outage” due to “major incidents”. A second difficulty is “teething problems” at the new units of Medupi and Kusile recently brought on line.

Partial breakdowns and inefficiencies at plants across the board are causing “partial load losses”.

“This is the case in all stations. But to fix it, you need an outage and because we are running very close to demand, it is not easy to take units out of service,” Oberholzer said. “Outage slips” — the failure to bring a unit back into service after maintenance — are also compounding the problem, he said. Lastly, boiler tube leaks, which are a result of “not following through on maintenance” are also reducing energy output.