The State of Electricity in South Africa - Part II: The Progress in Medupi

energy electricity economy governance
Wednesday, 9 September, 2015 - 09:52

The author of this article elucidates on the progress that has been made into the construction of Medupi in Lephalale, Limpopo

The construction of Medupi power station was first commissioned in 2007 to remedy Eskom’s electricity capacity, which had started exhibiting signs of failure to meet demand. It is the fourth dry-cooled, baseload station built in 20 years by Eskom after the Kendal, Majuba and Matimba power stations.

Eskom ranked the Waterberg Coalfields and the Lephalele area in the vicinity of the existing Matimba Power station as the most favourable option for the establishment of a new coal-fired power station. These included, among others, land availability in close proximity to the primary coal source and, competitive coal process [1].

The project will comprise six coal-fired generating units and each one will generate gross nominal capacity of 800MW (megawatts) of electricity. Collectively all the six units of Medupi should be able to produce 4 800MW of power upon completion in 2019. Once completed, the power station will be the fourth largest coal plant in the southern hemisphere and it will also be the biggest dry-cooled power station in the world. In January 2015, Eskom’s then chief executive officer (CEO), Tshediso Matona, stated that to be able to supply electricity constantly, the utility must be able to generate infrastructure to add to at least 3 600MW of capacity to its 42 000MW [2]. 
Therefore Medupi has been designed to fill a major energy hole. Upon completion it has the potential to bring big relief to industry.

What adds to the uniqueness of the Medupi project is the fact that it is being built backwards - traditionally Eskom has always started building Unit 1 and ended with Unit 6. This new approach is the result of the rock conglomeration on the southern side, which is excavated and reused as the engineering fill on the northern side.

Medupi Timeline

This section provides a timeline to milestones achieved in Medupi since the project was given the go-ahead in 2007. 

  • May 2007: Medupi terracing work done;
  • 14 August 2007: The official sod-turning ceremony is held at the construction site;
  • 18 July 2008: First structural concrete poured on site;
  • 21 November 2008: First three air-cooled condenser columns completed;
  • August 2009: Unit 6 boiler lift shaft completed;
  • 9 February 2010: First structural steel erection on Unit 6 boiler;
  • 12 August 2010: First chimney completed at a height of 220 metres;
  • 23 June 2010: Unit 6 generator stator in position;
  • 7 February 2011: Unit 6 turbine table handed over;
  • 8 September 2011: The 10 000 ton coal silo complete;
  • 21 November 2011: Auxiliary boiler completed;
  • 10 February 2012: Direct-current supplies energised;
  • 27 November 2012: The project commenced the first 24-hour performance testing to run at maximum capacity for the delivery of coal to Medupi from Grootegeluk mine;
  • September 2013: The Unit 4 generator motor was threaded into the stator; 
  • September 2013: The wet run of the submerged scraper conveyer was successfully completed. This system removes the ash from the bottom of the boiler, another essential step in getting the boiler ready for first fire;
  • January 2014: The boiler separators which were initially installed for Unit 6 have successfully been cut out. The new replacement separators will now be installed. The purpose of the separators is to separate the steam and steam water droplets;
  • February 2014: Following close cooperation between Team Medupi and the contractors all boiler issues have been resolved, which allowed for the installation of the Boiler Frame for Unit 1 commence;
  • 10 February 2014: Back energising of Unit 6 generator and Unit Transformers via the distributed control system;
  • 17 October 2014: The first oil fire of Unit 6 was ignited and smoke emerged from the chimney. This marked the first step towards synchronisation. Synchronisation means the process whereby the generator in Unit is electrically connected to the national grid.
  • 02 March 2015: Eskom produces first power and it is synchronised into the national grid.

Snail-paced progress

“It is the bones underneath and in the vicinity. Some of the graves were destroyed there. The belief systems of some people will tell you that this Medupi dream of yours will never happen. It will be another 10 years.” 
- CRL Rights Commission, 2015 [3]

The completion of Medupi is taking longer than anticipated. At the time of its commission Eskom estimated the total duration of the project to take no longer than four years. Over 7 years later, the project is nowhere near completion and up to so far it has only been able to complete one unit with 794MW capacity [4]. While the news of this milestone was received as a welcome relief to the current electricity crisis, it is worth noting that it only represents one sixth of the total amount of electricity that Medupi intends to generate upon completion. It represents only 1.8 percent of Eskom’s current capacity of 42 000MW.

The quote mirrors the frustrations around the Medupi project as it is simply refusing to come to completion. It highlights a grim possibility that the project might even take longer than Eskom’s current estimation, since it took four years for the first unit to be synchronised. Five more units are still under way. Eskom believes that Unit 5 will be ready for synchronisation into the national grid in the second quarter of 2016.

Escalating costs

When the project was first given the go ahead, it was estimated by then Eskom CEO, Jacob Maroga, that the project would cost R69 billion. The latest estimates show that costs have risen massively to R154 billion.
 
Apart from construction costs, there is also the increasing cost of coal contracts that have already kicked in. Exxaro, one of the contractors in Medupi disclosed that this amounted to R1.6 billion in 2013 [5]. According to Eskom’s integrated report for the six months ending September 2014, debt securities and borrowings totalled R265 billion, up from R182.5 billion in March 2012.

Conclusions

South Africa might have to get used to power shortages until Eskom can generate enough electricity to meet demand. At the moment this shortage is hurting industry and Medupi power station was intended to turn the fortunes in Eskom. However, completion is nowhere in sight. This is despite a major milestone achieved by Medupi in March this year, which saw the synchronisation of one of its units into the national grid. Sadly, the insignificant capacity produced in this one unit has not helped to alleviate the current power challenges confronting Eskom.

This is grave indeed, as Eskom’s failings have come at a very heavy cost to the economy. The situation, since it is refusing to abate, means that South Africa may have to make do with the little reserves currently available at its disposal. It would be sensible to assume that more rationing may be on the cards, as a result of this situation.

The disheartening reality about the Medupi debacle is that it comes at a heavy cost to the tax payer. This is where it gets challenging too as resources intended to speed up construction have yet to yield fruit.

Double the time of construction means double the cost of the project and more. Medupi can certainly attest to this. This means that while 2019 has been set as the revised completion date, industry might simply have to brace for the possibility of yet another disappointment.

Notes

1. Eskom, Factsheet: Medupi Power Station Project, www.eskom.co.za, February 2014
2. Financial Mail, Eskom: Motana’s Mission, www.financialmail.co.za, January 2015
3. CLR Rights Commission stands for Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities
4. Eskom, Medupi produces its first power, www.eskom.co.za/news/Pages/MedupiSync.aspx
5. Exxaro, Medupi power station project, www.exxaro.com/pdf/ExxaroGGAnalystpresentation.pdf, 2014

- Elias Phaahla (elias@hsf.org.za) is a researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation.

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