With a huge power crisis looming large in South Africa, state-owned power provider Eskom today held a media briefing to deliver its quarterly “State of the System” address, as well as the steps the company will take to reduce the strain currently being experienced.

Eskom’s Chairman of the Board Zola Tsotsi explained that while the nation power grid is tight, the company will have to take risks to get the system back to “a functional level”.

“We faced a number of challenges last year that comprised of financial and structural issues. We are, however, heartened by the government’s response to these challenges. The plan covers interventions that the government will take to assist Eskom. We are working towards building a sustainable Eskom, but this may mean taking risk that could result in short-term pain. The electricity system is still tight, but ultimately as a company we will prevail,” he said during the media briefing.

Eskom Chief Executive Tshediso Matona explained that Eskom is in a very difficult spot at the moment, but he is sure that Eskom knows what the solutions are.

“The Eskom ship is steering through difficult waters, but I’m struck by the optimism of employees. The quarterly State of the System address is standard practice for us, but it’s happening now at a very different time as we come from a period where we had to loadshed the country. This is a pattern that Eskom is going to find itself in. I have come to understand the nature of the problem and what is needed to deal with it. We know what the problem is and know what the solution is to get us out of it,” he explained.

The power provider had to loadshed last week Friday, and Matona explained that this was due to several trips of certain units. He also explained that summer is maintenance season at Eskom when demand is lower. “Eskom has had a maintenance philosophy in place for the last 90 years of operation. The only problem us that Eskom has not remained faithful to that philosophy – and that is the price that we are paying now. We have not maintained our plants like we should.”

He added that it will take just as long to rectify the problem as what it took to create, saying that it will take “years and years” before things will be back to normal. He mentioned that Eskom is in a bit of a sticky situation, as the board constantly pushes Eskom to keep the lights on, but that means deferring on maintenance.

“We need 5 000 MW in order to keep the lights on. But our equipment has become so bad, the risk of breakdown (from non-maintenance) is an ever-present problem. If we carry on, there will be a catastrophic breakdown.”

In the same breath, he said the system is vulnerable, but any fault will push the system into loadshedding. “We often ask what we are going to do when loadshedding happens, but it has now become a question of how we cope with it.”

The best solution to the current problem is for Eskom to go back to its original maintenance plan, and that is exactly what it is going to do.

“We have decided as a company and supported by the government, to get down to our maintenance religion and implement it properly. So we will deal with all the maintenance issues that need to be addressed so that we can recover the reserve margin. We will draw on the best resources in the company to make that happen. We need the same model as Koeberg, where they simply shut down when there is an issue. I think their record is 400 days without a shutdown.”

Tsotsi mentioned that the current maintenance plan will  take about 10 years to complete, and in that time the training of new artisans are incredibly important. “The technical skills base eroded over time, so that is the biggest challenge in the maintenance plan. But we know what the gaps are and how we can plug those – in the short and long term. We need to artisans from the FETs, so training and skills development is very important.”

Touching on Eskom’s financials, Tsotsi explained that the cash flow is not where it should be. The Mail & Guardian newspaper last week ran a report stating that Eskom will be financially broke in 21 days – something which Tsotsi didn’t address.

“On the financial side the liquidity situation is under pressure not just because of the diesel, but also lower sales, building new capacity and the lack of cost-effective tariffs.”

Concluding his portion of the media briefing, he simply said “We have come to a turning point. We can either carry on doing the things we are doing now, or we can do the right thing. We need government support and new capacity will pull us out. We again ask of the country to reduce its electricity usage as it really helps.”

In December last year, Eskom apologised for the inconvenience that loadshedding caused just before Christmas.

“We recognise that during the holiday season the weekends do matter, but we think we have to choose the better of two evils and rather loadshed over weekends than during the week as well. It really pains us to have to loadshed. We know the public does not take kindly to it. It is not something we derive pleasure out of,” Matona said at the time.

He also explained that there was a lot of unplanned outage, which put more strain on the system.

“It is important to accept that a major part of the squeeze is that we just have too many of our plants are out, which was unplanned. A complete black out will be an extremely catastrophic event and will take weeks to solve and is too ghastly to comprehend. We want to retreat from the brink of disaster.”

If you’d like to view Eskom’s presentation from the briefing, you can find it here.

Charlie started his professional life as a motoring journalist for a community newspaper in Mpumalanga, Charlie explored different journalistic angles since his entry into the fast-paced world of publishing in 2006. While fostering a passion for the arts, Charlie developed a love for technology – both which allowed him to serve as Entertainment and Technology Editor for an online publication. Charlie has since been heavily involved in consumer technology for various websites and publications. He thoroughly enjoys World War II films and cerebral documentaries; aviation; photography and indie music. Oh yes, and he also has a rather strange obsession with collecting coffee mugs from his travels.