Southern Africa gears up for steady power supply

Feb 18, 2002 01:00 AM

The bane of business and residential users of electricity -- capricious and damaging power black-outs -- may become a thing of the past in the contiguous nations of Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique with the completion of a region-girding 400 kV power line.
Benefits will be felt as far north as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). "This is regional project at its most practical and dynamic," says Swaziland's minister of Natural Resources, Magwagwa Mdluli. "We all share the same problem -- unreliable electricity supply -- and we have pooled our resources to bring a solution."

Pooled resources mean energy trading. The transportation mechanisms are the new power lines. Each nation in the Southern Africa region generates power to some extent, and can export excess electricity or import during peak usage times or when the local supply is inadequate to meet a nation's daily needs.
Swaziland, for example, imports 90 % of its electricity from South Africa, purchasing from that country's energy corporation ESKOM. But the Maguga Dam, a joint project of South Africa and Swaziland that will soon be completed, has the potential of generating 50 % of the Swaziland's electricity needs.

Energy trading amongst the 14 member states of the Southern African Development Countries (SADC) was up 20 % last year, a time that also saw the completion of several key regional infrastructure projects.
"These projects, like the region-spanning 400 kV lines fanning out from South Africa, will further facilitate energy trading," said Bruce Farrer, managing director of the Swaziland Electricity Board at a SADC Energy Technical and Administrative Unit Executive Committee meeting in Swaziland recently. Farrer chaired the meeting on behalf of the host country.

The organisation's Electricity Sub-committee also met, and reported on declining electricity usage. In Swaziland last year, electricity users increased to over 38,000 (6,000 commercial and the rest residential), compared to 36,000 the year before. But electricity consumption measured in kW-hours declined from 745.5 mm in 2000 to 695.6 mm last year, the lowest level since 1997. The decline was due to a slow-down in the economy, which saw a number of major factory closures and a scaling back of operations at other large commercial facilities that were among the most intensive energy users.
"Electricity usage is a key economic indicator, like store sales in the retail sector, and house and car sales," says Eric Nxumalo of the Swaziland Chamber of Commerce. "It is possible to gauge how well or troubled an economy is by a rise or decline in electricity consumption."

When the sub-continent's economies revive in the next upswing of the business cycle, an expanded and rehabilitated power infrastructure will be in place to meet electricity demand. Participants at the SADC energy meeting in Swaziland noted the successful completion of the 400 kV lines connecting South Africa and Namibia, and a sister line running from South Africa through Swaziland to Maputo, Mozambique, terminating at the new MOZAL aluminium smelter.
"The projects will undoubtedly enhance energy trade between these countries," said Farrer. "Combined with this have been improvements into operation of the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), which have reduced inadvertent power flows and power oscillations."

Natural resources minister Mdludli said that with all SADC member states except the island nation Mauritius involved in the regional power pool, finding financing for capital-intensive energy producing projects would be easier. A reliable power supply will come too soon for Charles Dube, a supermarket manager in Manzini, Swaziland.
"We have to throw out our inventories of frozen food when power goes off and items melt in the display cases. This particularly happens during the summer, when electrical storms wreck havoc with the transmission lines," he reports. "But the worst to be hit are the factories at Matsapha. They can lose an entire production line if the manufacturing process is interrupted when the power goes off."
When transmission projects are completed and Swaziland's electricity supply stabilises, credit must be given to Maputo's giant MOZAL Aluminium Refinery. South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland, the three members of the Lubombo Spatial Development Initiative (LSDI) named after the Lubombo mountain range that the countries share, will enjoy a spill-over benefit from an initial effort to supply the Maputo refinery's extensive energy needs.

Aluminium production is an energy-intensive enterprise, and the plant would not have been possible without South African power. The plant, which opened late in 2000 and considered the centrepiece of the region's development initiative, will require 45 MW of electricity when fully functioning. This is approximately twice Mozambique's entire current electricity consumption.
Because this is beyond local generating capacity to produce, especially as Mozambique reconstructs after two decades of civil war and post-war flooding disasters, the 400 kV line from South Africa was included in the original concept for Mozal. The line passes through Swaziland, and extends to the Democratic Republic of Congo, allowing for energy imports and exports into central Africa.

The three nations' utility companies formed a new company MOTRACO to build and run the power line, giving permanent employment to 800 and creating 9,000 jobs during the current construction phase. Swaziland is not yet hooked up to the line, whose giant pylons now rise out of former cattle grazing lands, and slice through towns and farms.
When legal agreements are concluded, this new addition to the kingdom's landscape will not only end irksome blackouts, but also symbolise the interconnectivity of the region's nations, and a reality of a united effort to meet a shared need.

Source: Inter Press Service
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