• Many South Africans are struggling with loadshedding as Eskom's unplanned breakdowns reach sky-high levels,
  • But energy expert Chris Yelland says increased maintenance may form part of the unplanned breakdowns.
  • This could help save SA from more load shedding later in 2020.
  • Still, the situation is alarming, and Eskom warns energy shortages may persist for the next two years.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za

The sky-high unplanned breakdowns at Eskom may not be quite as calamitous as many are fearing - it may reflect much-needed maintenance work that could help save the country from load shedding later in the year.

Eskom has not managed to keep unplanned breakdowns at below 9,500MW - the level at which it is forced to consider loadshedding - for a single day since December 4, 2019. 

In fact, unplanned breakdowns have been trending higher in December, reaching 15,921 MW on Saturday morning and triggering stage two load shedding. 

But EE business intelligence managing director Chris Yelland says the unplanned breakdown number apparently includes “opportunistic maintenance”. 

“Eskom officials in various departments told me the situation is not as bad as it looks. They explained that they have been using the low-demand December period to do additional maintenance on units to avoid breakdowns in 2020,” Yelland told Business Insider South Africa.

He said this kind of maintenance is classified as "unplanned" because it was planned in less than 28 days, which according to Eskom criteria means it was not "planned". 

“For example, when they decided to do quick strategic repairs on boiler tubes leaks two weeks ahead of the time it would be described as unplanned,” Yelland said.  

Still, he is alarmed by the current load shedding.

“The first week of January and the second week of January are typically the weakest demand weeks of the year, and it is seriously alarming that during these weeks - over a weekend when demand is even lower - Eskom implemented loadshedding,” he said.

The latest loadshedding was triggered by the failure of a conveyor belt feeding coal from Exxaro’s Grootegeluk mine to the Medupi power station in Lephalale, Limpopo.

The 7km-long coal conveyor belt is supposed to transport 4,000 tons of coal per hour to Medupi. The belt first started giving problems in October, when the tail-end of the belt suddenly snapped and twisted, with the weight of the coal damaging the machine. 

Yelland’s own research showed that Eskom’s energy availability factor (EAF), the amount of electricity generation capacity available, has seen the worst year in 2019 in four years.

In response to a series of questions, Eskom said unplanned breakdowns stem from years of not doing adequate maintenance on electricity generation plants. 

“It is not a challenge you can fix overnight. It will take time. We have a recovery plan in place to address this issue and it will be at least two years until we will see the full benefits of it,” Eskom spokesperson Dikatso Mothae told Business Insider South Africa. 

South African first suffered load shedding thirteen years ago, or rolling blackouts, and it poses a massive risk to the country’s ailing economy.

In 2019, when the country saw a first-quarter economic decline, load shedding was mainly blamed.

Neither the presidency or the department of public enterprises has responded to repeated requests for comment since Friday.