Home-Grown Electricity Needed

A media scare in Swaziland about an imminent cut-off of the country’s electricity by foreign suppliers has highlighted its near-total dependence on external power sources and jump-started contingency plans to expand domestic power production.

Debate about power supplies has also been sparked by concerns as to how the growing needs of companies will be met.

At present, about 80 percent of electricity is imported from South Africa. That supply seems stable for the foreseeable future, but additional quantities of electricity are not likely to be forthcoming. This poses a challenge to Swaziland’s plans to alleviate poverty through greater industrialisation.

In a recent communication with the Swazi Ministry of Natural Resources, South African energy giant Eskom said it would honour its contract to provide current levels of power.

“However come 2007, there will be no excess capacity to sell to us.
We will be limited to what we are now getting,” Henry Shongwe, Swaziland’s senior energy officer, told IPS.

With South Africa importing 60 percent of goods produced in Swaziland - and with 80 percent of Swazi imports coming from South Africa - officials in the two countries agree that bilateral economic ties need to be nurtured.

However, South Africa will need all the electricity it can generate to keep pace with its own industrial requirements in the coming years - which begs the question of how Swaziland will power local economic growth.

A source at Eskom said the utility was looking into “de-mothballing” some of its shuttered electricity plants for South African use and for the export of surpluses, but acknowledged the need for all Southern African countries to eventually become self-sufficient in energy.

Hopes have been pinned on the fact that Swaziland has large deposits of coal, which might be used for domestic generation of power. At present, the country’s entire production is sold to South Africa for industrial use; but the natural resources ministry believes a coal type that has not been mined since 1997 may go some way to make up electricity shortages.

“Semi-anthracite is used for steam power generation. It is available, and can be used domestically, unlike the anthracite coal shipped out of the country,” said Shongwe. Ministry sources estimate a coal-burning electricity plant could be built and running within five to seven years.

Construction of such a plant might spark concerns over the extent to which it could compromise air quality, and threaten other aspects of the environment.

But, as Charles Mavuso, a contractor who works with the Swaziland Electricity Board, points out—new power sources are a necessity for Swaziland, not a luxury.

“Southern Africans don’t need electricity to power up their iPods. We need electricity for survival,” he noted.

Like the developed world, which is faced with rising petrol costs, developing nations in Southern Africa are scrambling to find renewable energy sources.

Mozambique has the advantage of the massive Cahora Bassa dam in the northeast Tete province. The fifth largest dam in the world (and the second largest in Africa), the facility is capable of generating all the electricity needed by Mozambique’s capital, Maputo. Cahora Bassa was built at the end of the colonial era and is largely owned by Portugal, but negotiations are underway to bring it under Mozambican ownership.

South Africa and Swaziland have also joined forces to build the Maguga Dam, spanning the Komati river in Swaziland near the South African border.

Electricity generation has begun at a plant attached to the dam, but the output is currently negligible. Consequently, the dam does not contribute to the main power supply (known as the base load), and is called into service only during times of peak

demand.

The same holds true for the Ezulwini Hydroelectric Plant outside the Swazi capital, Mbabane, an even smaller operation.-IPS

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