Eskom eyes hi-tech, renewables to keep lights on

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 28 Jan 2022

Troubled power utility Eskom is pinning its hopes on renewable energy to keep the lights on.

The company is also investing in advanced surveillance technologies, such as drones, to protect its assets, which are being targeted by vandals and criminals, leaving the country in the dark.

This emerged yesterday when the state-owned company briefed the country about the state of its system.

In a statement, Eskom says while it continues to make major positive strides, delivering key milestones in its plan to operational recovery, “the road to sustainability will still be long and hard”.

Eskom’s move to renewables comes as the majority of its coal-fired power plants are reaching the end of their operational life.

There have also been calls for the power utility to turn to cleaner sources of energy to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, Eskom is the world’s biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide, a pollutant linked to ailments ranging from asthma to heart attacks.

It notes the state-owned power utility accounts for about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in South Africa.

Rising load-shedding risk

Eskom group executive for transmission Segomoco Scheppers says the majority of the coal power stations are operating past the midway of their operational life, at an average of 42 years, resulting in high levels of breakdowns.

“As we continue to perform reliability maintenance and refurbishment projects to address lack of power station reliability, an elevated risk of load-shedding remains.”

Scheppers adds that Eskom will continue to rely on renewable energy sources to play a significant role to ease the pressure on the national grid, having contributed more than 3 500MW to the power system during the day in some days.

“For example, on 1 November 2021, at 13:00, about 19% of the country’s demand was supplied by renewable generation,” he says.

“While this is still low, we expect renewables’ contribution to continue rising as additional capacity is brought online.”

South Africa has been making steady progress in bringing in renewable energy sources to the national power grid as Eskom battles to keep the lights on, resorting to crippling bouts of load-shedding over the years.

In November last year, the South African government, at the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, announced a R130 billion renewable energy deal with the UK, US, Germany, France and the EU.

The climate finance deal aims to accelerate the country’s transition to renewable energy and away from coal.

Amid the crisis at Eskom, in June last year, president Cyril Ramaphosa announced the decision to amend the Electricity Regulation Act to lift the threshold for companies to produce their own electricity without a licence to 100 megawatts.

Companies have embraced the move, as they want to wean themselves from the troubled state-owned company.

Municipalities have also been calling on government to be allowed to source their own renewable energy power as Eskom has been failing them.

André de Ruyter, Eskom group chief executive.
André de Ruyter, Eskom group chief executive.

In its statement yesterday, Eskom says major projects and outages undertaken this year will continue to exert pressure on the supply side, raising the risk of load-shedding in the short-term.

These outages, however, are necessary interventions that will deliver long-term benefits and the security of energy supply, says the firm.

“Despite our good performance in recent weeks, particularly over the festive season, surpassing that of the previous quarter, as well as the same period in 2020, much still needs to be done for Eskom to achieve operational sustainability and ensure energy security for South Africa,” says André de Ruyter, Eskom group chief executive.

Gunning for criminals

According to Eskom, key among these are the interventions to extend the operating life of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, which will see the facility operating at half its generating capacity for most of the year.

“As we continue to turn around the situation in less than ideal circumstances, we would like to caution against increasing criminal activities on our networks and our assets, which result in increased risks of customer interruptions, public safety concerns and financial losses.

“We urge security and law enforcement agencies to deal decisively with these criminal elements, as their activities could have a very negative impact on our economy if not addressed decisively,” says De Ruyter.

He adds that Eskom has deployed an additional 450 security guards to its key sites, and is using advanced surveillance technologies such as intelligent cameras and drones equipped with infrared cameras to protect its assets.

Further overt and covert surveillance and intelligence gathering are being put in place to prevent criminals from causing damage to the Eskom system, says the parastatal.