December 15, 2017

Firing up base-load generation capacity


Coal Stock Yard at Richards Bay in South Africa (Transnet)

Coal remains part of Africa’s base-load generation plans – for the foreseeable future, writes Wayne Lindecke, Director: Power Generation, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Africa

While an optimal energy mix relies on a variety of generation technologies – and there is significant movement across the continent towards ‘greener’ technologies like gas or renewables – the reality is that coal will remain a major driver of some African economies.

Countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe and Senegal, continue to exploit the advantages of this fuel source – setting the scene for their counterparts elsewhere on the continent that intend to develop these thermal power production capabilities. Mozambique, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania are all potential candidates for mine-to-mouth power plants, with various projects already in the very early stages of their lifecycles.

However, it is South Africa – with its vast coal resources and large fleet of power stations – that sets the benchmark on the continent in terms of coal-fired power generation. Added to this, South Africa’s new builds such as Medupi power stations, will feature super-critical boilers and turbines improving their efficiencies and use of coal and scares water resources. Meanwhile, flue-gas desulphurisation technology, which will be retro-fitted on all six of Medupi’s generation units, will significantly reduce their sulphur-dioxide emissions. This is in line with South Africa’s own commitments to global green-house gas reduction agreements.

Coal is expected to play an even more prominent role in the country’s energy mix in the foreseeable future, reflected by its proposed base-load independent power producer (IPP) programme. The current coal base-load programme by the South African Department of Energy (DoE) intends to procure 2 500MW of power from IPPs. While there are a number of simultaneous conversations around the renewables IPP programme, the gas-to-power programme as well as the proposed nuclear programme – amongst this mix the importance of the coal base-load power programme should not be underrated. Even with the new builds of Medupi and Kusile, there is still a need to replace the aging fleet of existing coal-fired power plants that were built in South Africa in the 1980s.

Beyond South Africa, key developments in other Southern African states include, but not exclusive to:

  • Botswana – The country’s coal resources are the basis upon which the highly-ambitious Trans-Kalahari Corridor is being planned. This project envisages constructing a railway line all the way from Mmamabula coal fields to Namibia’s small, but smart port in Walvis Bay to allow it to export coal to steel-producing Asian nations.
  • Mozambique – while its government has placed significant focus on its extensive natural gas reserves, the country also intends to continue to develop its sizeable coal resources in Tete. This important resource has already stimulated significant investments into rail and port infrastructure in the country. Real interest has also been expressed in using this coal for power-generation. It should be noted that the coal reserves in Tete, combined with the country’s extensive liquid-natural gas reserves, positions Mozambique as a potential power hub in southern and eastern Africa.
  • In Zimbabwe, the Hwange Power Station has undergone extensive upgrades recently. However, the country still has significant potential to bolster its coal-generation capacities and there are other coal fired projects currently under development.

Despite these development, much of the developed world has or is in the process of moving away from coal base-load power, making it more challenging for African states to secure financing for their projects. Added to this, African policymakers are grappling with the impacts of global climate change – and are joining their counterparts in the developed world in striving to resolve the policy trilemma by providing affordable, decarbonised and secure electricity. However, in our experience, meeting the onerous environmental demands on these plants promises to add the most value to Africa’s coal generation aspirations. And, ongoing research into cleaner technologies – including, coal-gasification, carbon sequestration and storage and fluidised-bed technology – all point to cleaner coal solutions for Africa’s future.

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