News / Africa

    South Africa's Coal-Fired Power Plant Advances

    While the world tries to go green, South Africa still invests in coal. Last Friday, President Jacob Zuma visited what is soon to become the fourth largest coal power-station in the world.
     
    The welcome was warm. Gathered against the gates, hundreds of workers greeted South Africa's President Jacob Zuma as he made his way through the construction site.
     
    In Lephalale, a wind-blown desert area 350 kilometers north of Johannesburg, the huge power station is being built. And on Friday, the South African president came to unveil the first unit which has been completed. In his speech, he reminded the crowd about the purpose of the gigantic project.
     
    "These new power stations will provide the electricity capacity needed to grow the economy, attract investment, and create jobs," said Zuma.
     
    The Medupi power station is part of a $41 billion project to build several power plants across the country. The project is run by Eskom, South Africa's electricity company.
     
    Since construction started in 2005, 17,000 people worked daily on the Medupi site to build what is seen as part of the solution to South Africa's power woes.

    Keeping up with demand
     
    As its economy keeps growing fast, the country has been struggling to keep up as power demand outstripped supply. It came close to catastrophe in 2008 when a series of power shortages hit the country. According to some estimates, the demand in terms of power should double by 2030.
     
    South Africa tackles the problem by using mainly coal to produce electricity. It has decades of coal reserves in the ground, according to Eskom chief executive Brian Dames.
     
    "Coal is very important for us to use. It has been the basis in which South Africa has built the largest economy in this continent. And it will have to be a basis in which we will employ going forward. We have to find a way to do it in a cleaner manner and this construction behind us is the first step in that direction," said Dames.
     
    The project has also been mired in controversy, precisely about its use of a fossil energy supply. In order to finance the new power stations, the government has planned to increase electricity prices by 25 percent each year, between 2010 and 2013.
     
    The first unit of the Medupi power station tested by Jacob Zuma should provide power starting in late 2013. And the total completion of the power station is slated for 2017.

    Affordability is key
     
    Jan Schroeder, an independent power consultant, says the choice of coal is actually the only option the government has, right now, to provide affordable electricity, at least until some transition to renewable energies is undertaken.
     
    "They need to provide affordable power. So people say, 'Give us renewable energy, and give it to us cheaply.' The truth is, there is a period that you have to go through. At the moment, renewable energy is still very expensive. It could be three to four times the price of coal energy," said Schroeder.
     
    South Africa is still the 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but it has engaged to reduce them. The government plans to increase the proportion of renewable energy in its energy mix from zero to nine percent, and the coal share would decrease from 85 percent to 65 percent.

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