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Not science fiction: SA may soon have too much electricity

South Africa could be heading for a surplus of electricity within five years as Eskom, the state power monopoly, has accelerated its build programme and the first unit of the Ingula pumped storage scheme is a year ahead of schedule, Eskom chief executive officer Brian Molefe told journalists at a media briefing at Parliament.

But Molefe indicated that this does not necessarily mean that Eskom will not be involved in the proposed nuclear build programme. He said nuclear was “a cheap and clean” technology, but the ultimate decision on the programme was in the government’s hands.

“We are a year ahead at Ingula,” Molefe said. Ingula is under construction on the escarpment of the Little Drakensberg, between the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. The scheme consists of an upper dam (Bedford Dam) and a lower dam (Bramhoek Dam), 4.5km apart and connected by waterway tunnels.

The underground powerhouse will house four 333MW reversible pump-turbines. The first has come on stream a year ahead of schedule.

Extra power capacity

When this powerhouse comes on stream – all four units are tipped to be in operation by the end of the year and another one will be up before winter – Eskom will have about 1?400MW of extra power capacity.

Once the coal-fired Medupi and Kusile plants come on stream, they will add nearly 10?000MW of electricity, which senior Eskom managers argue will radically change the power position of the entity.

Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown said: “I commend the team at Eskom for progress made in the execution of the build programme and overall improvement in the performance of the business. She noted that its leadership had been pivotal in raising the morale at the entity.

Molefe, promising that there would be no load-shedding in the winter months, said nuclear energy would be a good route to go “even if we have a surplus [from Eskom’s other generating activities]”.

Adding nuclear power units would create an opportunity to generate income from electricity sales, and could “reduce the cost [of electricity] for ordinary citizens”.

Pressed on how the private sector could get involved in Eskom businesses, Brown said that Eskom “must decide which assets [should be disposed off]”. She felt strongly that the “basic services” of generation, transmission and distribution should remain in the hands of the state. But bringing in the private sector to help Eskom to recommission them mothballed power stations could be an option, she added.

Downgrade fears

On a potential Moody’s downgrade of Eskom, Molefe said: “Let us not jump before the drum starts beating. They [Moody’s] are approaching the drums … let us work together as South Africans to show it is not necessary to downgrade [Eskom]” or any of the state-owned entities.

He said Moody’s was doing preparatory work to consider whether it was necessary to downgrade the electricity utility. A downgrade would still leave South Africa a notch above junk status.

“Even if we do end with a downgrade [by one notch], it is still investment grade,” Molefe said.

Donwald Pressly is editor of Cape Messenger

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