Joburg Expat: The Medupi Power Station

July 27, 2011

The Medupi Power Station

Medupi Power Station
Following my previous post about energy, where I somewhat romanticized the notion of poverty and low energy usage in South Africa, I thought I should be honest and show the entire picture.

South Africa, you see, is building the world's largest dry-cooled coal-fired power plant. When completed, the Medupi Power Station will have six boilers powering an 800 MW turbine each. No other coal plant has ever been built on this scale. It is commissioned by Eskom and subcontracted to Hitachi and Allstom, who employ a series of other subcontractors. A lot of jobs are dependent on this project, as well as the other power station built in Kusile.

How does South Africa have the money for such a huge enterprise (projected at over R100 Billion)? Well - electricity rates have gone up three times in the last few years (and you'll remember that we contributed an additional R795 to Eskom) so that in the long term the plant will finance itself. The loan to finance construction is backed by the South African government, which in turn gets backing from the World Bank. You might remember there was a brief delay some time back when President Obama balked at so much World Bank involvement in yet another "dirty" technology, but it was approved in the end. My guess is if Michelle had to schedule her cooking and laundry around everyday power outages (the norm here just two years ago), she would have been on Barack's case to approve another coal plant in a hurry!

Construction at Medupi Power Station, photo couresy of Eskom

What's really cool about this plant is its dry-cooling technology (no pun intended). Turbines need to be cooled, and historically that was done using water. Which is why you often see power plants next to a lake. But water is a scarce resource (and will become much more so in the years to come), so the relatively new technology of dry cooling is the way of the future, especially in arid or semi-arid regions like South Africa.

The first boiler is scheduled to go online in 2012, but I'm not holding my breath. It's not easy to manage such a big project in the best of circumstances, and South Africa has additional challenges. I doesn't have enough of a skilled workforce, for instance. There is the culture of strikes which seriously hobble progress on the site (and elsewhere - my fingers are frozen as I'm typing this while I'm still waiting for new gas to be delivered), a history of shoddy work, even bomb threats.

Nevertheless, the work at Medupi is steadily moving forward. And so is South Africa.


Jake said...

While I am living in Cape Town now, I grew up in Ellisras or Lephalale as it is referred to now. I stayed there all my school life and it is great to see a story about Medupi :)

Jozi said...

There is actually another power plant similar to this being built in Mpumalanga called Kusile, now that's the big boy. It will cost 20 billion extra because its emisions have to be cleaner than Medupi and yet another power station called Ingula in the Free State, it's a pumped storage power plant though.

Sine said...

Yes, I'm aware of Kusile as Noisette's company is involved with that as well. It's pretty cool to see these huge projects here in South Africa, though as I wrote before, it's also worrisome to imagine what "catching up" will mean in other ways...

will said...

Hi Eva,

I'm a researcher from the U.S. and I might end up in South Africa to do some field work on the Medupi power plant. Do you have any advice about getting from Jhb to Lephalale to visit the power plant site?

Is there any chance we could connect via email?

Thank you in advance for your help,


will said...


Sine said...

Hi Will,

my husband flies up there every once in a while from Lanseria airport, which is to the North of Joburg. There is a weekly Monday morning charter flight (which I guess is charted by Eskom) to Medupi, but I don't know if that is only open to people already involved in the project and how you might be able to book it. I also read that there will be a new budget airline starting in November called Santaco Express, so that might be an option.

If you're a subscriber to my blog I can send you an email, or if you give me your address. Sorry I don't have a contact me link set up yet, need to work on that:-)

will said...

Great, thank you! I just subscribed to the blog, feel free to send me an email.

I will reach out to Eskom to see what they have to say about their flight, but it's great news that it flies out of Jhb.

Marek Bańczyk said...

Hi everyone,

I run a recruitment company and we were offered a good contract on hiring engineers for Medupi in several European countries.

Would anyone help me out in judging the living conditions / amenities in Ellisras area as well as the security issues?

great thanks

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Now this is a post I can sink my teeth into. Celebration of technology and progress. And thank you, thank you, thank you, for putting dirty in quotes. Yes!

I was going to comment on the Obama thing but this blog is not meant to be an outlet for the political so I suppose I best respect that.

Sine said...

Haha, yes, best stay out of the political. I had to laugh reading this blog post as it says Medupi is scheduled to go online 2012. Ha! It has just gone online not long ago, and I believe not with all boilers.