Clear Policy, Incentives Needed to Harness Readily Available Alternative Energy

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BYLINE: Gerald Wolman

THE recent admission in a radio interview by the Eskom CEO, Jacob Maroga, that it will take between 10 and 15 years to build a big new coal-fired power station and bring it on line means that there is an urgent need for a drastic rethink on the provision of energy to meet the growing industrial and other demands for power.

In the past, Eskom has talked about building new power stations in five to eight years. This seemed optimistic to technically informed observers who well remember that the current generation of big power stations usually took 10 years from first approval to first power, and longer to bring all modules on stream. One must also bear in mind that the engineers involved in the construction had done it before and they knew exactly how to go about it. They were also supported by a more efficient rail service and private contractors with well developed skills in making boilers and the other equipment for power stations.

The fact that no new power stations have been built in the last three decades means that many of the planning and technical skills have been lost. A whole generation of engineers has retired and some of the international companies which provided much of the specialist equipment have moved staff to other countries where their skills have been in demand.

The challenge is enormous. A whole new infrastructure has to be laid down to deliver huge tonnages of coal on a daily basis and to handle the accumulating ash. There is also a water problem, for South Africa may have cheap coal, but water for steam and cooling is expensive and supplies are limited. Vast amounts of equipment have to be imported and the distribution network upgraded. For most of the local staff the challenge will be new and the learning curves will tend to slow progress. In all probability, the complete project will probably take closer to 15 than 10 years.

Nuclear power stations will also be subject to delays. First, the firms which manufacture the reactors have full order books and new customers will have to take their place in the queue. Second, there will be strong objections, court cases and appeals from the anti-nuclear lobby and this, too, will consume time.

In these circumstances, we can expect prolonged periods of electricity rationing. The government has apologised for the delay in building new power stations, but this does not solve the problem. What is now required is for the authorities to look at new ways to increase generating capacity and reduce demand in the short term.

This will cost money, but surely that will be fair compensation for the delays and the massive cost of the blackouts which commerce and industry have suffered.

New ways to generate power range from wind and hydro power, to using the gas that has been discovered off the West Coast. Offshore gas is by far the most attractive option, as combined cycle gas power stations are efficient and they can be built quickly. They are also versatile and clean enough to earn carbon credits. The problem, however, is that no international oil or gas company will move rigs into the area until the government has sorted out its legitimate concerns about mineral rights, royalties and tax. …