Ailing Tutuka Power Station can be revived by addressing skill shortages, infrastructure and corruption – energy expert

Ailing Tutuka Power Station can be revived by addressing skill shortages, infrastructure and corruption - energy expert

Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa recently announced that two units at the ailing coal-fired Tutuka Power Station will come back online in September. This move might ease at least two stages of load shedding.

Ramokgopa made the announcement during his briefing on the implementation of the Energy Action Plan on 27 August.

According to an energy expert, it is possible to resurrect the ailing Tutuka Power Station, which is rife with corruption, and allow it to operate at full capacity. What is required is to attract skilled workers, maintain infrastructure and eradicate corruption.

The energy expert is part of a task team that generated a nationwide study on the energy availability factor (EAF) at SA’s power plants over the last 10 to 20 years. The task team’s report reveals how often a power station was available or unavailable, as well as how many unplanned breakdowns occurred. It also analysed skill shortages.

On Tuesday, the energy expert told Daily Maverick the finalised report is confidential and needs to be presented to Eskom and the National Energy Crisis Committee (Necom), hence the name of the energy expert cannot be published at this time. The report was commissioned by Eskom and Necom.

Tutuka is one of the power stations recently visited by the task team, which found that for Ramokgopa to revive Tutuka, he must remove the constraints that prevent the power station from working at full capacity.

“It is physically conceivable to save Tutuka, but it will take a significant amount of effort to address issues such as a lack of expertise, corruption and technical issues relating to plant maintenance.

“If the proper knowledge is applied and there is a desire to combat corruption, the situation at Tutuka can be reversed. If this is accomplished, more electricity will be supplied into the grid, reducing load shedding,” the energy expert told Daily Maverick.

Tutuka Power Station was scheduled to be shut down between 2030 and 2041, but this is being re-evaluated.

The move to close Tutuka comes during SA’s just transition to cleaner energy sources and as the US joined Britain, France, Germany and the European Union to provide $8.5-billion in funding to accelerate South Africa’s shift away from coal and towards renewable energy sources.

South Africa is the world’s 12th-biggest emitter of climate-warming gases and is heavily reliant on ageing coal-fired power stations for its electricity. The government has said the money would help it deliver on a more ambitious pledge to reduce emissions by 2030.

However, the ANC has recommended that Eskom delay the decommissioning of its ageing coal-fired power stations to help minimise rolling blackouts.

Decommissioning coal-fired power plants, the energy expert told Daily Maverick, will not happen come 2030 because Eskom doesn’t have the capacity to replace the megawatts that will be lost from the plants feeding the grid.

“If the decommissioning should go ahead it would mean that there will not be enough electricity to keep the lights on in the country.”

Ramokgopa on Sunday described Tutuka as a perennial underperformer in recent years, saying it had dropped from having an EAF of around 98% to its current 21%.

“This is a big power station in that you have six installed units … generators should be generating about 566MW and put together, about 3,500MW, but all that we are getting is 21%.

“Of the 3,500MW, we are only getting about 1,000MW. There are about 2,500MW that are locked in Tutuka and that gives an opportunity to make an intervention that can be telling and really make a significant dent on load shedding,” the electricity minister said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Electricity Minister raises hopes of fewer hours of load shedding – but we’re not yet out of the dark

There is a plan, the minister stated, to bring some of the units at Tutuka onstream next month. He said the plant got a helping hand from the Resource Mobilisation Fund — a vehicle launched by Business for South Africa earlier this year to support the roll-out of the Energy Action Plan.

Ramokgopa said, “We are also trying to understand what are the reasons outside the technical considerations and we see there is an issue of leadership instability at Tutuka, [where] over a period of seven years we have about six general managers.” 

Tutuka is one of Eskom’s six worst-performing plants and earlier this year was reported to have an EAF of 15%-17%. On 24 January, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts heard that Tutuka’s manager had to wear a bulletproof vest and needed armed guards because of the threats posed by criminal syndicates wanting to profit off the plant. 

In addition, a R400-million tender to rehabilitate the power station is still under investigation by Eskom’s forensic and anti-corruption unit following allegations that were raised 20 months ago.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eskom still investigating R400m Tutuka tender, 19 months after whistle-blower complaint

In December last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised the deployment of South African National Defence Force troops “in response to the growing threat of sabotage, theft, vandalism and corruption at Eskom power stations”. The stations where soldiers were deployed included Majuba, Camden, Grootvlei and Tutuka. DM