Let’s applaud folks who keep the lights on

It is difficult today to pick up a newspaper without some article criticising Eskom. But does the company as a whole deserve criticism? Justifiable criticism is aimed at the behaviour of the Eskom board and top management, but what is often forgotten is that rest of the organisation is performing a sterling job in supplying electricity to the country. It is unfair to criticise the whole organisation because of the actions of a few top people.

Mike Rycroft

To distinguish between the two groups, I will use “Eskom” for the board and top management and “the utility” for the rest of the company.  The vast majority of the approximately 45 000 people who comprise the utility are dedicated to running and maintaining a reliable electricity supply to the country. The staff numbers have considerably reduced from the 66 000 employed in the mid-1990s and voluntary retrenchments are still reducing the number of skilled and experienced staff available to run the company.

The staff complement consist of approximately 6500 professionals and approximately 21 000 technically skilled or artisan level employees. An annual learnership intake of approximately 5% of the staff complement, replaces lost staff and provides for growth, ensuring a continued complement of trained and capable staff.

In an attempt to cut staff costs Eskom has been involved in a wave of voluntary retrenchments. Voluntary retrenchments in the period from 2006 resulted in a large number of experienced staff leaving, which left the utility with a shortage of skilled and experienced staff, to the point that there were few older staff left to mentor up and coming newcomers. The extent to which the loss of skilled staff was affecting the company was raised in parliament. The situation seems to have improved with up and coming skilled professionals emerging, but voluntary retrenchments are seen to continue, although the process was halted in 2016.

Most city dwellers are not familiar with the utility’s customer interface staff,  but those living in the peri-urban areas, on smallholdings and in smaller towns will be familiar with the staff maintaining the utility’s distribution networks. One does not hear much about metering problems in the utility’s networks, or problems with service.  I have a friend who used to farm in Underberg who tells of the utility’s staff travelling at all hours of night to restore power to the farm, so that cows could be milked in the morning.

I do not have direct contact with the utility’s customer interface staff, but as a journalist have regular contact with both the utility’s head office and regional engineering and technical staff at all levels. I cannot fault any instance where information has been requested, and have found the staff always ready and capable to assist with explanations and details of projects, plans or even problems. Visits to the national control centre, power stations, substations and other sites give the impression of capable and dedicated people, many times working under difficult situations created by top management, to ensure an uninterrupted supply of electricity  to the country.

The utility’s technical and engineering staff are recognised worldwide for their expertise and participate extensively in international forums. The president of Cigre, a large international organisation, Dr. Rob Stephen, is an Eskom employee, and many other members of the utility serve on study committees of this, or similar, organisations. Most recent conferences feature a large number of well prepared contributions from utility staff at various levels.

The transmission and distribution plan recently announced show a high level of expertise and preparedness for both growth and restructuring of the transmission network to accomodate changing generation and load patterns. The latest transmission plan produced by the utility shows that a great deal of work has gone into planning the development and expansion of the network.

Much has been made of the success of the REIPPP programme, but the utility’s transmission and distribution contribution in arranging connections to the grid is largely overlooked. In spite of complaints and sarcastic remarks from some quarters about delays in getting connections, the utility has done a good job in connecting the solar- and wind-powered generators to the network. Staff are involved in every project, from the planning stage to the grid code compliance testing to final connection. It is often not realised that utility teams were involved in all bid projects, including those which were unsuccessful.

Energy shortages and the rolling blackouts of 2008/2009 could not be attributed to bad planning on the part of the utility. New build programmes are controlled by government, which expected new generation plant to be provided by IPPs, but this never materialised, and at the same time the utility’s build plan was put on hold, in spite of predictions by its planners that an energy shortage would result. The way in which the utility handled the energy shortage to ensure that the lights stayed on most of the time, shows a great deal of competence.

Criticism is regularly levelled at the utility as the sole purchaser of electricity, and its generation planning is said to be out of touch with developments in the electricity generation field. It is easy to criticise and to propose alternate plans when one does not actually have to deliver. Anyone carrying that type of responsibility would be wise to hedge their bets. Most utilities world-wide have gone for a diverse mix of generation in their long term plans.

While the lights are being kept on let us not criticise the utility for the sins of a few senior employees, but rather give credit where credit is due.

Send your comments to energize@ee.co.za

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