Evaluating Eskom’s bold turnaround claims: what SA’s C&I firms need to know

Eskom power lines near the Ankerlig Open Cycle Gas Turbines in Atlantis, Cape Town. Picture: Henk Kruger Independent Newspapers

Eskom power lines near the Ankerlig Open Cycle Gas Turbines in Atlantis, Cape Town. Picture: Henk Kruger Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 19, 2024


By Charl du Plessis

Recently, Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa made the bold assertion that the anticipated improvement in the electricity supply would make his role redundant by the end of the year.

He also announced that due to the reinstatement of unit 3 of the Kusile coal-fired plant, the country had begun to “turn the corner” in reducing load shedding.

Eskom has since reported a consistent, year-on-year improvement in its energy availability factor (EAF), with the latest increase being from 27.4GW EAF in May 2023 to 28.9GW in October 2023.

However, data on Eskom’s medium-term outlook suggests that it may not yet be time for South Africa’s commercial and industrial (C&I) companies to abandon their contingency plans to ensure security of supply in the face of load shedding.

While this does provide much-needed relief from the growing intensity of rolling blackouts and will go a long way in curbing the escalation, the EAF remains very low, hovering above the 50% mark, which effectively means that half of Eskom’s generation fleet remains out of service.

Furthermore, the relative gains made towards improving EAF remain well below Eskom’s set target of above 60%. These top-level figures alone show that despite Eskom’s claims that the worst is indeed over, the numbers are simply not adding up. With 2024 being one of the most pivotal election years in South Africa’s democratic history, the chance of political “string-pulling” to prop up the harsh realities of the situation, cannot be ruled out.

Facing the figures

Eskom’s Medium-Term System Adequacy Outlook (MTSAO) for 2024–2028 gives credence to the fact that, in terms of the state of the C&I sectors, due caution is warranted when it comes to relying on the idea of an energy-secure future over the next five years.

Among other findings, the MTSAO stated that, according to its current modelling and projections: “In terms of unserved energy, no scenario achieves the system adequacy metric of 20GWh in all years of the MTSAO period.”

According to MTSAO, there will be a shortfall gap between demand and supply over the next five years. If anything, these findings highlight a number of severe challenges in maintaining system reliability and adequacy, which will require further investments and major adjustments to Eskom’s energy generation strategies to meet the desired goals.

Given the EAF trajectory over the last decade, it would be prudent for South Africa’s C&I sector to start planning for the worst when it comes to load shedding.

Similar conclusions were drawn by the state’s updated draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which envisions an increase in new generation capacity of over 29.3GW, procured through various programmes and projects up to 2030.

Considering that Eskom has an installed generation capacity of about 49 191MW, the current shortage is about 25 087MW given the current energy availability factor of around 51% for the year to date. Turning the corner and ending load shedding within a few months through quick fixes, as promised, is thus unrealistic. Instead, large new-build projects are required – and soon – to close this shortfall gap, yet these often take years to develop and construct.

The IRP places a strong emphasis on gas-to-power capacity and currently, South Africa imports the majority of its natural gas from Mozambique. However, due to several factors relating to infrastructural limitations, political tensions and environmental pressures, gas imports from Mozambique are expected to decline.

Furthermore, Sasol’s recent announcement that it will cut off its supply of the gas pipeline to industrial customers from as early as 2025, will throw yet another spanner in the works.

The most viable alternative is imported liquefied natural gas (LNG), for which there is currently no import terminal capacity at South African ports. Imported gas will also come at a much higher price than the gas sourced from Mozambique. Amid these arresting realities, the long-term financial feasibility and successful roll-out of this planned gas-to-power capacity therefore hangs in the balance.

Eskom also plans to operate some of its coal power stations, which have been earmarked for decommissioning beyond their intended service lives. However, given the current unreliability and increased risk of breakdowns with end-of-life power stations, this is also likely to fall short of expectations.

The updated IRP also relies to a very large extent on embedded generation and distributed capacity (own generation, rooftop solar PV, energy efficiency etc.) which is expected to increase by 900MW per year. If anything, this projection provides firm proof that the government will not be able to solve the energy in its own capacity, despite its lofty promises.

There’s simply no quick fix – wheeling included

The private sector is contributing significantly to potential new utility-scale generation through independent power producers (IPPs), who are entering into direct energy wheeling arrangements with companies across South Africa. Although wheeling will, in the long term, add generation capacity, wheeling inherently does not address the need for security of supply for companies in South Africa.

To this point, it is important to note the following:

– Unreliable renewable generation without energy storage for wheeling purposes will not address generation capacity constraints in the Eskom grid in the short term. In fact, it is more likely to worsen the “Duck Curve” phenomenon and introduce additional challenges to Eskom peaking generation requirements, which could result in elevated stages of load shedding during specific times of day

– Wheeling, however, does have the potential to improve renewable penetration for companies in the long run. Furthermore, it has the potential to generate (lower than embedded generation) savings through wheeling credits/refunds and consequent savings. Below is a comparison of expected embedded generation net savings versus wheeling generation net savings for companies in South Africa:

o Embedded Generation Net Savings = Grid Power Rate minus PPA Rate

o Wheeling Generation Net Savings = Wholesale Electricity Pricing System (WEPS) minus PPA Rate (where WEPS is typically significantly lower than the Grid Power Rate, which will result in lower net savings than embedded generation on a per kWh basis).

For now, at least, transmission grid capacity constraints may delay the deployment of private power generation in South Africa significantly, and although many companies and IPPs are signing agreements, these projects are ultimately still exposed to Eskom’s administrative and transmission grid capacity constraints.

A more realistic outlook

Despite slight improvements since the last assessment, the overall outlook remains precarious, with forecasts indicating a persistent capacity shortfall between Stage 3 to 4 for most of the year. Taking into account the unplanned risk of 2 000MW, higher levels of load shedding up to Stage 5 to 6 are still highly possible.

Eskom’s MTSAO highlights the ongoing capacity constraints, emphasising the need for increased new-build capacity, improved plant performance to over 70%, and a stabilisation of electricity demand at current levels to mitigate the risk of load shedding in the near future.

Based on these findings therefore, the risk of load shedding between Stages 3 and 6 will remain high over the next 12 months.

Energy efficiency for future-proof industries

The threat to the commercial viability, operational integrity and business continuity of companies in the C&I sectors remains imminent. Without adequate risk mitigation strategies, C&I face consistently undermined levels of profitability and productivity.

C&I companies need to improve their energy efficiencies in the face of this challenge.

Competitiveness will also hinge on diversifying energy sources to reduce reliance on Eskom generation. This could involve incorporating renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, or biomass into the energy mix. By generating their own power, businesses can become more resilient to grid disruptions and volatile energy prices.

Low-capex, high-opex diesel generation should be carefully calibrated with alternative high-capex, low-opex battery energy storage systems (BESS) to ensure affordable business continuity. Predictive analytics coupled with optimally sized embedded BESS, solar and thermal generation can sustain world-class operations in the South African energy context.

Now is also the time for companies to develop highly effective contingency plans that outline procedures and protocols for managing operations during load shedding events. Companies should identify critical functions, prioritise equipment and resources, and establish communication channels to ensure seamless co-ordination and response during disruptions.

For businesses in the C&I sectors, who are facing multiple infrastructural headwinds, risk management should now be a non-negotiable, top priority.

In the words of US author Zig Ziglar, it may indeed be time to “expect the best but prepare for the worst”.

Charl du Plessis, General Manager, Energy Partners Power