Eskom’s failure in the grand scheme of things

Eskom’s failure in the grand scheme of things

That Eskom has failed should be clear to all, including those who do not even care to look. South Africa is now permanently facing multiple sessions of daily loadshedding. Clearly, under these circumstances, it is easy to get lost in detailed accusations and lose sight of the bigger picture. The failure of Eskom must, however, be contextualised within a wider framework.

What stands at the heart of this bigger picture? This is the question we have lost sight of, and the answer to which we should be seeking. So, let us start by examining the broader context.

At the very beginning of civilisation, it was declared: “In the sweat of the face thou shalt eat bread.” In other words, at the centre of the big picture was the individual, and their ability to survive by working and, thereby, earning a living.

As time progressed, society became more complex, and the centre of the picture became blurred. For the most part, society was unsuccessful in bringing much improvement to the lives of the vast majority of its constituents. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) famously described the life of man to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

After Hobbes’ death, things began to change for the first time, with the advent of the industrial revolution. Individual income, or income per head, started to increase in real terms; in economic terms it was stated that wealth per capita had increased. What caused this increase in income per head was not easy to understand. In 1776, when Adam Smith tried to answer that question by publishing his famous book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, the modern science of economics was born.

The realisation soon came that a successful economy would rely heavily on electricity. The English, who were scientifically ahead of others at the time, were able to harness electricity to drive the wealth of the nation. Even quite early in this process, the communists also realised the importance of electricity. Shortly before his death, Vladimir Lenin (1870 – 1924) proclaimed: “Communism is Soviet power plus electrification.” Lenin died still holding to the belief that electricity was the key to prosperity.

At the centre of the big picture, therefore, were still individuals who earned gainfully while working in an exchange economy. That was the source of the wealth of nations, and electricity was key to achieving this goal.

If one takes a moment to consider, it becomes clear that society’s focus has shifted from the working individual within the exchange economy to other obscure ideals, such as “saving the world”. Recently, it was saving the world from Covid. Now, it is saving the world from climate change. Saving the world is completely different to creating a system focused on the individual and work. During Covid, everybody was ordered home. Individuals do not exist in Hobbes’ solitary world – Covid was anti-individual and anti-work.

To fix Eskom, we need to know what went wrong. In following the current debate there is a complete lack of clarity regarding this subject, as well as when this failure occurred. We even have a group of people planning to obtain a court order to stop loadshedding – as if all one needs to achieve the end of loadshedding is a simple decision. This is clearly not the case; even if the court order is issued, loadshedding will not end.

Eskom essentially does two things: first, it generates electricity and second, it distributes that electricity. This electricity is generated at power stations that are connected to a grid. Distribution happens via that grid. Consumers are also connected to the grid, but draw electricity from it. Though we often read about the danger of the grid collapsing, grids do not collapse.

To understand what happens to grids, take this simple example: assume a generation fleet consists of 10 generators, each capable of supplying 12 units of energy. The maximum operation supply is thus 120 units of energy. Assuming the actual load is 100 units of energy (bearing in mind that the supplier of electricity has no direct control over the actual load), each generator is supplying 10 of its available 12 units. Each generator is thus operating at a comfortable 83.33% of its design capacity.

We often read that an Eskom generator has tripped, but what is the result of this? In our example, nine other generators would automatically pick up the load. Now, nine generators are required to supply the 100 units, so each generator is now expected to provide 11.11 units. This is still possible, given each generator’s power capacity of 12 units.

Now, let’s assume that a second generator trips. You probably already see the problem coming: the 100 units of energy must now come from the remaining eight generators, so each generator is now expected to provide 12.5 units of power. However, they cannot do this because their design capacity is only 12 units, so when the second generator trips, the protective equipment on each of the remaining eight generators is activated successively to protect them from being overloaded.

In other words, the next generator in line will trip, casting its load onto the remaining seven generators, and in very rapid succession a cascade of trips will take place, running through the remaining generators.

This has never yet happened in the history of South Africa. Long before it reaches this point, the grid operator manually sheds the load to below 100 units of energy, to ensure the cascade of trips does not happen. If a cascade trip were to take place, every generator would need to be reconnected to the grid.

Each generator rotates at exactly 3 000 revolutions per second, for a frequency of 50 cycles per second. Every generator is exactly synchronised and every generator rotor is exactly in step with all rotors of every other generator. It is better to have an orderly shutdown than a trip, and it is certainly far better than a cascade of trips.

There is a further complication: the initial energy source is usually coal, which is converted into heat. Heat is then converted into steam energy, which is fed to turbines. These, in turn, are connected to the rotors of the electric generators that produce electrical energy.

This steam can’t just be turned off with the flick of a switch, though. History has shown what can happen if this steam builds up … there is a famous photograph depicting a rotor that was “thrown” from a generator (through the power station’s roof) and embedded itself in the opposite bank of the Vaal River.

So to reiterate, an orderly shutdown is far preferable to a cascade trip. Thus, the reason for loadshedding is clear: it is important to reduce the load to below that which the operational capacity can handle.

How did the country land in this situation, though? Two problems exist. First is the need for new generating capacity and second, the existing aged plants need to be replaced. It normally takes about 20 years to build a new power station, so the problem arose 20 years ago and should have been solved at that time. Indeed, in 1996 Eskom engineers did their forward planning and indicated additional power stations were needed. They also indicated that the reserve capacity would be gone by 2007. In 2008 loadshedding started. It is evident that nothing has been done to rectify the situation over the last 27 years.

Without the new power stations, it is unclear how the problem can be fixed. Solutions needed to be found and implemented 27 years ago. The problem is akin to someone who lives in Johannesburg, who has a meeting which starts at 10:00 in Cape Town. At 09:45, they get into their car to drive to the meeting. Of course, they are not going to make it. Yet they can’t work out why they aren’t going to arrive on time! Perhaps they can stop along the way and get a court order, instructing them to be in Cape Town?

The most important thing is to return to the original bigger picture. Society should concentrate on the individual and ensure jobs exist in an exchange economy – there is no other picture that works. Even the communists realised that central to a working economy is electricity. We need to get back to focusing on the individual, jobs, and the exchange economy immediately … we have already lost 27 years.

Published by

Professor Robert W Vivian and Dr Albert Mushai

Legally Speaking is a regular column by Professor Robert W Vivian and Dr Albert Mushai, both in the School of Economics and Business Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand. Vivian is a leading authority on insurance and risk management. He has written a number of books on South Africa’s business history. Mushai holds a master’s degree from the City University, London, and was the head of the insurance department at the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe before joining the University of the Witwatersrand as a lecturer in insurance.
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