Is Eskom endangering Medupi by disregarding vital test results?

Stephen Grootes grills Eskom spokesperson Andrew Etzinger (scroll down to the end to listen to the whole interview on Soundcloud):

Q: We expected the risk of load shedding to start increasing next week only. What has gone wrong?

A: On Tuesday we had a wobble when two of our largest generators went out of service. That decimated just about all our reserve margins. Electricity demand has started normalising after the festive period. Majuba is still only operating at half its capacity and a lot of other plants are out due to technical problems and planned maintenance. This is the situation and that’s how it’s going to be for the next three years.

Q: Why are so many things going wrong? Is it because you failed to do proper maintenance over the last few years?

A: That’s right. From 2010 we sacrificed some of the essential maintenance to keep the lights on. We’ve fallen behind. Our power stations are, on average, 31 years old. They need a lot of maintenance and, even more important, refurbishment. We need months for this, but we’re not getting to it at the moment. Until the new capacity comes online we won’t have a gap big enough to take out these power stations and do the long overdue refurbishment.

Q: Is the load shedding timetable put out by Eskom last year still accurate?

A: It’s still accurate.

Q: You’re aiming to ensure everyone has electricity throughout winter. Will you be able to do so?

A: Winter is a time of less concern to Eskom for two reasons. Firstly, we have a short, sharp peak in the evenings so, if we do have load shedding, it’ll go by almost unnoticed as it’ll be for only two to three hours. Secondly, from the point of view of the economy, it’s far more devastating to have load shedding during summer. Rolling load shedding is a summer phenomenon. Our concern is summer. Once we get to winter our generating plants perform much better due to cool, dry conditions in the Highveld, which are optimal for coal fired power stations.

Q: Energy expert Chris Yelland recently wrote an article about the construction of Medupi’s Unit 6, which we all expected to go online on Christmas Eve. It didn’t. Yelland says there’s an international best practice test that Eskom must do to ensure that the steam is clean enough. He says that Unit 6 didn’t achieve the proper test results and that Eskom has decided to ignore that test and to continue building the unit as it is. Yelland claims this puts the whole unit at risk.

A: We’re aware of the situation. Our engineers have looked at it; there is no risk. We have to have clean steam going into the turbine to avoid damage. To ensure this we have to do these “blow through” tests. In terms of international standards – having considered many opinions – the issue is that a normal turbine blade must be replaced after about 25 years. The worst case scenario of connecting the pipework at the moment [without achieving internationally acceptable test results] would be to replace the turbine blades two years earlier, i.e. after about 23 years. It’s worth the risk given the cost of diesel. The sooner we get Medupi online the better.

Q: Would Medupi’s Unit 6 be up and running if workers didn’t go on leave in December?

A: It’s possible. However, everyone is entitled to leave. About 95 percent of staff members on site work for contractors with their own conditions of service. Eskom can’t dictate how contractors’ workers take leave. It’s important that people took leave; everyone’s been working very hard and we’re almost there. The road is clear.

Q: You’ve said that before. How much longer before it’s up and running?

A: We’re looking to synchronise by the end of February. Then we’ll start another test phase after which we’ll start commercial operation in June.

This discussion has been slightly condensed. Listen to the Soundcloud clip below for the unabridged interview.

Chris Yelland, Investigative Editor of EE Publishers, comments on Andrew Etzinger's explanation above:

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