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SA: Electricity minister a needs a clear technical plan to fix Eskom

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By Professor B Dikela Majuqwana

President Cyril Ramaphosa is now done with the much-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle. Instead of reducing the size of his Cabinet to be lean and mean for agility, he has increased it.

One of the biggest surprises was the creation of a new Cabinet post, minister of electricity, to focus on ending load shedding and prevent a meltdown of the economy due to electricity shortages.

The president has appointed Dr Kgosientsho “Sputla” Ramokgopa as the minister of electricity in the Presidency. In a way, the president has taken over the role of electricity delivery in South Africa, leaving the Department of Energy to itself to review its own role in the crisis.

The question for the public is what the minister is there to do. I am here giving him free advice on what he must do, not to end load shedding speedily but to position South Africa’s electricity supply to be more predictable and secure.

Ramokgopa is a graduate in civil engineering and this is something that will be to his favour. He must remember that engineers never proceed to a solution without first gaining clarity on the nature of the problem at hand. They first define the boundary conditions of the problem.

From there, he must go for the jugular from the start, to quickly get his team to a point of decision and keep them without appearing to be nice. He must go through all the iterations early. Having put his team together, he must ask Eskom to give him its head of systems engineering, the person with a bird’s eye view of the working of Eskom’s infrastructure. The person must be part of the proceedings and engagements with the board and top management.

The minister must ask the systems engineer to furnish him with a copy of his reports detailing the operational performance of Eskom power plants. In particular, the minister must look for the core part of the report detailing system failure mode appraisals, the Failure Mode Effect and Critical Analysis (FMECA) report and examine its statistical aspects. To gain insight into what is going on, he must focus on four broad performance regimes: Operating, End of Life (Retirements), Replacement and Life Extensions, and Capacity Expansion plant.

Having grouped the power plants within the four categories, what should he expect to see? He can then overlay the four plant performance regimes over what is called a Bath Tub statistical distribution, or something like it, assuming this works best.

He will make several observations quickly. For example, he should expect the Operating Plant to show stable behaviour, with no surprising or destructive failures. No trouble there or the systems engineer will know specialist staff who can get any trouble sorted out.

Plants under End of Life should be the heart of Eskom’s problems. The systems engineer can lead us to identify effective ways to economically keep the plants alive until the plants under Replacement and Life Extension are brought online. He can also recommend a schedule for such a programme. Life Extensions and Replacements are either refurbished or new and should be fairly easy to manage according to recommendations of the systems engineer and his supporting specialists. Plants under Expansions can be expected to give some trouble due to engineering and construction flaws but these should quickly go down to the level of Operating plant performance.

Up to now, I have said nothing about bad coal with rocks, sabotage by criminals or corruption. These are things the systems engineer will draw attention to in his consolidated recommendations report for action to be taken by the minister and the board of Eskom. That is to say, the statistical footprint of the system is what will lead us back to sources of system failures. In the absence of such a report, all is speculation. It is near impossible to fix a complex technical system by speculation. Everything must be done to avoid this.

It is likely that our Eskom systems engineer will identify two broad classes of trouble: what W Edwards Deming called common causes. These belong to the system and can be handled by technical staff within each area of plant operations – boiler, turbine, cooling system, control, and auxiliary plant. After common causes of failure the systems engineer will, after studying the statistical footprint of the system, identify what Deming called special causes of trouble due to interaction with outside sources of trouble.

The systems engineer will then guide the minister to convene key decision-makers in Eskom together, involving many parts of the organisational hierarchy. Proceeding of the gathering produces a ranking of the special causes according to harmful impact. This is the basis for recommendation in a report on special causes and what to do to stop them. Without this exhaustive report that connects all the dots, talk of things like rocks used to dilute coal supplies, sabotage and the like are irresponsible and unhelpful.

At this point, the minister has two recommendations reports under the guidance of the Eskom systems engineer. These can be consolidated and signed by the board and himself.

Part 1 of the report is a statement on operational decisions guided by specialist staff to eliminate common causes of failure that belong to the physical plant. This is what the Energy Availability Factor reflects. Part 2 of the report covers special causes of failure, the ones most likely to produce asymptotic consequences like load shedding and cascading failure in the rest of the economy. This is the part that should reveal if the quality of inputs is below expectations and the source of that trouble. Or whether there is sabotage and its likely sources.

Ultimately, the systems engineer will generalise the results of his work in the report as a theory of the Eskom power system and how to handle it to secure the best results. It is this theory that will serve the minister well. His next challenge will be to sustain this achievement.

At this point, the minister can focus on instilling a sense of purpose in the organisation. This achievement is to establish a stable doctrine of philosophy of what it means to succeed in running a national utility to serve society now and in future. I hope the minister will take a leaf from this free advice.

*Prof B Dikela Majuqwana is the founding member of the National Union of Scientists and Engineers