Eskom cuts maintenance to the bone and still can’t avoid Stage 4 blackouts

Eskom was forced to implement Stage 4 load shedding at short notice on Wednesday (June 9), despite having cut the level of planned maintenance at its power stations to just 1 273 megawatts (MW) – an unprecedented low.

This reduction was in place by Monday already, when the utility announced Stage 1 load shedding in the evening peak. This was changed on Wednesday morning when it announced Stage 2 load shedding until Sunday night.


Subscribe for full access to all our share and unit trust data tools, our award-winning articles, and support quality journalism in the process.

Puzzlingly, its system status bulletin published on Wednesday “forecast” 3 033MW of planned maintenance this week – more than double the level the utility has confirmed is currently out of service for this reason. This is lower than the expected level as at the end of May, which was 4 138MW for this week (and one has to go back to March to find forecasted levels of 2 500MW of planned maintenance this week).

Eskom still somehow forecasts maintenance of 4 283MW next week, which is highly unlikely given the current situation.

(While the utility typically does the bulk of its planned maintenance in summer and reduces this in winter, the lowest level for planned maintenance projected as recently as last week was 2 400MW in mid-July.)

Eskom has clearly cut planned maintenance to what is only absolutely essential due to the continued poor performance of its coal fleet. Had the utility pressed on with its originally planned maintenance, the generation shortfall would be higher than the 2 000MW which necessitates Stage 2 load shedding.

In fact, the differential between ‘originally’ planned maintenance (even at 3 000MW) and the current level – which equates to 2 000MW – would be the difference between the Stage 4 load shedding required on Wednesday and Stage 6 (where it has a shortfall of 6 000MW).

What does Stage 6 look like? 

For Eskom direct customers in Johannesburg it would mean 11½ hours a day without power.

Source: Screenshot from EskomSePush app

Of course, the scheduling of maintenance is dynamic and changes to underlying performance of generating units will see the utility either bring forward or delay planned shutdowns.

Eskom says the outage at Koeberg (970MW) is no longer included in the planned maintenance figure as it was due to return to service on June 1.

Still, this effectively means it only has roughly somewhere between two and four coal units (of around 300-600MW each) in its entire fleet offline for deliberate maintenance (a typical station has four to six units).

This is unheard of.

This year versus last year

The planned outage factor (amount of generating capacity that is offline for planned maintenance) is at a record low.

It is just 2.8 this week so far (Monday and Tuesday). This is the 1 273MW (or 2.8% of total capacity) that Eskom states is offline.

Contrast this with the lowest planned outage factor last year of 3.27 (later revised to 3.44), which occurred in week 25. Based on total capacity at that time, this was around 1 600MW. Tellingly, the planned outage factor never dropped below 4 (or the 2 000MW level) for the remainder of the year.

In the last week, coal plants reached a peak of 24 700MW (on Sunday at 7pm), but since then the coal fleet has not been able to generate more than 24 000MW. In summer, this would be adequate; when augmented with other sources of power, including imports, renewables and nuclear, it would be sufficient for typical summer peak demand of around 29 000MW.

In winter, however, peak demand is in excess of 32 000MW (32 607MW on Tuesday at 6pm).

Reasons for load shedding

But the coal fleet remains unreliable. On Wednesday morning, Eskom reported “continued delays” in returning units at Kusile, Tutuka, Duvha and Kendal to service. As of last week, Tutuka was producing around 40% of its installed capacity of 3 654MW (six 609MW units).

Sunday Times reported last weekend that last Wednesday night only one of Eskom’s 17 power stations was running at full capacity.

That it (Komati) is among Eskom’s oldest plants is horrifying.

On that night, according to the paper, only 10 of the 17 power stations were running at 50% capacity or above.

In recent weeks, unplanned outages have reached as much as 16 700MW (on May 30 at 6am). Breakdowns as at Wednesday morning totalled 13 752MW. This had increased to 15 087MW by lunchtime as it lost additional units at Medupi and Duvha.

Why can’t Eskom keep the lights on?

Ordinarily, breakdowns at the 13 000MW or even 14 000MW level would be fine.

Eskom’s “likely risk scenario” factors in outages of around 13 000MW (with an additional 2 200MW operating reserve margin). In the evening peaks, it would be able to draw on emergency generation capacity (pumped storage schemes and open-cycle gas turbine plants) to meet demand.

But it is relying on this peaking capacity to keep the lights on during the day.

Pumped storage schemes have been used throughout the day for the past week, peaking at 2 568MW at 9am on Sunday.

This is clearly unsustainable as Eskom simply does not have the excess capacity overnight (2 000MW) to pump this water back uphill.

Read: Eskom’s ‘credible’ plan to keep the lights on (Sep 2019)


The longer than planned outage of Koeberg Unit 1 (970MW), which was originally expected to return to service a month ago, has certainly been a major contributor to the current crisis. Eskom says the unit will be synchronised later this month.

Curiously low level of imports

Curiously, the level of imports is far lower than normal.

This is typically at the 1 500MW level, but the utility’s data portal confirms only half this amount (between 700MW and 750MW) is currently being received.

Despite the use of non-commercial generation (effectively two Kusile units), which ranged from 421MW to 726MW over the past week, Eskom has not been able to avoid load shedding.

Last week, it ate into its important operating reserve margin twice (May 31 and June 3) to avoid the use of expensive emergency resources and/or load shedding.