Chains of folly

October 24th, 2013, Published in Articles: Energize


When one has been dragging chains made of one’s own folly around for over 170 years, one is alert to that happening to others in spite of the availability of the most sophisticated tools for forecasting, planning and control. The myriad pitfalls along the way are often of our own making and we end up becoming entrapped in them before we realise it.

Take for instance, the views expressed by Prof. Anton Eberhard to the Fossil Fuel Foundation a few months ago. If my reading of that erudite speech in your excellent publication is correct, the good professor advanced many a compelling argument for the demise of big coal, big nuclear and big networks. Even more interesting, perhaps, was the revelation that a senior Eskom executive once admitted that the utility’s business model was built on exactly that: big coal, big nuclear and big networks. It doesn’t seem as if the professor likes it, or thinks this is appropriate.

We all know that Medupi, Kusile and (perhaps) Coal 3 are already realities of life, if not tomorrow, then certainly at some point in the (distant?) future. So I’m afraid the professor may be a little late – we are all having to face up to the fact that big coal will be in most, if not all, of our futures. And as the good professor says, big coal is an onerous link, as we will no doubt find out. It is perhaps better to face up to uncomfortable truths before they come back to haunt us. Perhaps the Eskom executive who leaked the family secrets was forging a few weighty links in his own chain.

Perhaps he was merely expressing a reality that has been ingrained in Eskom for many years. After all, when mighty Klip Power Station (424 MW)  was completed in 1940, it was billed as the “largest power station in the southern hemisphere.” Klip was a marvel of technology and as Prof. Eberhard points out, large coal fired power stations are beset with delays and cost over-runs. So it was with Klip, although it had nothing do do with coal, but with the outbreak of war. Klip ran reliably and cheaply for two decades. This changed when the second challenge arose.

Klip literally ran out of coal from its tied colliery. Alternate sources had to be found at extra costs. I am not sure that was because Klip was “big coal”; it probably had more to do with poor geology and mining techniques. It could have happened to a hydro station during a prolonged “black swan” drought or a solar installation swept away by a violent flash flood. Be careful what you wish on others.

There are huge delays at Medupi. Cost overruns are so horrendous that its best not to mention them, and the problems with technology, labour and project management seem to overwhelm everyone. Of course, these things will not happen at Coal 3, that goes without saying. Modern coal plants are more efficient, cheaper (in real terms) and more ecologically friendly than any which Eskom has ever built.

This, says the good professor, causes an insecurity of supply, which he lays squarely at the pithead of coal, as he does the vagaries of demand growth and other ills which beset many industrial undertakings of the scale of a 5000 MW behemoth. It is difficult to see the link sometimes, but one has to soldier on. Then on to big nuclear, if I may. That is a real minefield, even if it has nothing to do with coal. Costs are higher, time scales are longer and environmental issues are nightmarish. Forget Chernobyl and Fukushima. This is Africa, were heavy links are forged.

Apparently, the government has made a firm commitment to start the procurement process for the construction of Africa’s second fleet of nuclear power stations. Even the dates are fixed, if that is anything to go by. So, whether we like it or not, we will probably have big nuclear with us for the rest of our days, like big coal, in spite of the best arguments against both and whether we like it or not.

Curiously, this news follows hot on the heels of reports alleging that parliament’s energy committee was battling to defend itself against allegations of being biased towards nuclear power. After all, the CEO of Eskom started his career at Koeberg. The president himself took over from his deputy as chairman of the National Nuclear Energy Executive Co-ordinating Committee recently. Who can do anything against such a tidal wave of emotion with a load of solid arguments?

After all, we’ve known ever since IRP 2010 that 9600 MW of the beasts were looming, didn’t we? Bit late to close the stable door now that the Russians are at the gate. Is Hitachi going to follow, or perhaps Alstom? Those are indispensable links in the chain. And so on to big networks.

There’s the rub, for unfortunately the professor doesn’t say much about this, which is a pity. Networks provide the hardware that makes the electricity system work. It links it all together. Without a network, one is back in the feudal era of isolated islands of light in vast seas of darkness. Networks are a necessary evil to distributed generation, as I am sure the good professor would agree.

The future therefore depends heavily on the “smart” network (unfortunately, probably big), even though it may be in peril from hazards like terrorism or outbursts from the sun. Like the hazard of explosions in pulverised coal boilers so many years ago, we will surely find ways to deal with that. Size counts. So while, in the long term, one might be in support of Prof. Eberhard’s thinking about “big” coal and “big” nuclear, politics might frustrate rational thinking and will make for chains. On networks, however, I must beg to differ because to become small, one must think big. Where these links need to be forged, they should be strong but light, smart and indispensable.

And until those thoughts find more common ground, Sir, I remain your humble and obedient servant,

Jacob Marley