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The state of Eskom: Coal-fired power stations versus renewable energy

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Picture: Nic Bothma/EPA/taken July 8, 2016 – Jeffreys Bay Wind Farm in South Africa. Foreign governments and banks have showed great interest in repurposing coal-fired power stations in South Africa. Transitioning to renewable energy is a great initiative; it only becomes hypocritical when the same countries that are pushing for green energy here are themselves establishing new coal-fired power stations, the writer says.

By Abel Semosa

During the Middle East visit in 2018, Ramaphosa was accompanied by Patrice Motsepe and the country signed a R12 billion renewable energy deal with a Saudi Arabian Company. This was confirmed by Jeff Radebe when he was still Minister of Energy and he was also part of the delegation.

However, in 2018, Eskom said Grootlvlei power station, Kriel power station, Hendrina power station, Camden power station and Komati power station are old and unneeded, given the country’s plans for new power capacity by independent power producers (IPPs).

Just Energy Transition plans and decommissioning of power plants

The topic about transitioning from coal fired power stations to renewable has been controversial in South Africa; however, the Ramaphosa administration believes transitioning to renewable energy is the future. Eskom is already on the drive to repurpose some of the power stations such as Grootvlei power station, Komati power station, Hendrina power station, Camden and Kriel Power station.

Some units at Komati power station and Grootvlei power station are decommissioned and ready to be repurposed into renewable energy.

Can the repurposing of coal fired power stations have a negative impact on the energy?

However, since Jacob Zuma stepped down as the president of South Africa in 2018, loadshedding resurfaced but it was not as much as it was in 2020 when talks for “Just Energy Transition” deals were in motion with foreign governments. Eskom has assured us that shutting of these coal-fired power stations will not have a negative impact on the national grid but that is a different story now. The breaking of generators and exploding is the result of overheating because the generators are under a lot of strain.

The Australian government has indicated in their website that the reason they are facing loadshedding is the shortage of energy and generators are shutdown when they are under a lot of strain to avoid overheating and explode.

Eskom has not been honest with South Africans on what causes loadshedding; instead, they have blamed sabotage within the power utility. There is no sabotage at the utility but their project of repurposing coal-fired power stations has left other power plants generators under a lot of strain that end up overheating and exploding.

Komati power station that holds capacity of 1000MW has shut down its units for the favour of transitioning to renewable energy powered by Solar PV that holds 150MW, Wind that hold capacity of 70MW and 150MW of battery storage. The Komati power station was refurbished from 2008 to 2014 but in 2021, the Komati holds a capacity of 125MW. In 2013, former president Jacob Zuma launched Grootvlei power station; this was the second re-commissioned power station in Mpumalanga after Camden in 2010.

Grootvlei power station holds a capacity of 1200MW and have 6x600MW generating units. In a statement, Jacob Zuma at the reopening of Grootvlei power station said:

“the station adds to the progress we are making with Eskom’s return to service projects, which also include Camden and Komati power stations, the reopening of Grootvlei and other build programmes will help us to reverse the electricity difficulties we have been experiencing since 2007”

In August 2021, a repurposing project similar to developments at the Komati Power Station was planned at the Grootvlei plant, now scheduled for closure by 2025. Eskom has already decommissioned three units at Grootvlei and other units will be decommissioned before 2030. Eskom and the Netherlands government have already signed a letter of intent for this project.

Already Eskom has three worst performing power stations, namely as Duvha, Tutuka and Kendal but Ramaphosa is proceeding with decommissioning some power plants while the economy and people are suffering from power outages for hours every day. The three power stations accounted 44 percent of Eskom power plant breakdowns in 2021. Tutuka power station lost 2256MW capacity, Duvha had 1139MW unavailable and Kendal had lost 1613MW capacity. In total 5008MW generation capacity was lost.

In 2021 the country has suffered major loadshedding because of generator breakdowns from different power plants units but the government is proceeding with repurposing and decommissioning, before they can provide a stable energy for the people. Former Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter has continuously blamed the ageing of infrastructures maintenance, citing that they are old. But that is not true.

Unit 3 with capacity of 575MW at Duvha power plant has been unavailable since 2014 due to being over pressurised. It was supposed to be rebuilt by now and functional by 2019/2020 but Eskom in 2020 deemed it unnecessary to commission Unit 3 of Duvha because the unit is scheduled to be decommissioned by 2034. According to Money Web News, the lost two units, 3 and 2 contributed to the stage 5 loadshedding that took place March 2021 to March 2022. The plant alone comprises of six units each with capacity of 600 MW (3600 MW).

If Eskom were able to restore the units and other repurposed or decommissioned power plants units, power plants breakdowns, power outages or loadshedding would have been minimised or curbed until the renewable energy plants are established for the sake of climate change and global warming.

The claims by De Ruyter blaming ageing infrastructures for load shedding have been ridiculed by Daily Investor analysis, indicating that the age of the power stations does not automatically result in breakdown rates. The analysis was done comparing the Eskom performance using Duvha and Tutuka power stations with US coal-fired power stations, Wansely and Scherer. All the power stations are at the same level of age but according to the analysis, they are not showing similar trends.

According to the analysis by Daily Investors: “If Eskom’s claims of ageing infrastructure causing a significant deterioration in performance is true, then US and South African power stations should show similar trends.”

South Africa has enough energy capacity to power and end loadshedding but lack of maintenance at some power plant units has hampered progress. The return of service of some decommissioned and repurposed power stations was going to assist with the electricity demand requirements on the national grid by providing maintenance space for other power stations.

For instance, Komati power stations that is repurposed for renewable energy, if it was still operational, it was going to replace Unit 2 and 3 of Duvha while it’s on maintenance since Komati power station holds capacity of 1000MW, and at Duvha power station 1139MW was lot due to breakdowns, then led to a straight 12-month stage 5 load shedding.

Foreign governments and banks have showed great interest in repurposing coal-fired power stations in South Africa. Transitioning to renewable energy is a great initiative; it only becomes hypocritical when the same countries that are pushing for green energy here are themselves establishing new coal-fired power stations.

Aljazeera News has reported demonstrators in Germany protesting against the establishment of coal-fired power stations, whereas they are at the forefront encouraging South Africa to shut down its coal-fired power stations.

Semosa is a political analyst and holds a Master of Arts (MA) majoring in Political Science from University of Limpopo