By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue
EMALAHLENI, South Africa – Not far from Johannesburg, set amid the corn and sunflower fields of the Highveld in Mpumalanga province, stand two unusually thick and tall candy-striped smokestacks, dozens of stout concrete support columns, and the tangled steel superstructure of the unfinished 4,800-megawatt Kusile coal-fired power station.
About 370 kilometers (230 miles) northwest, spread across a stretch of dry scrubland in Limpopo province, is the construction site for Kusile’s unfinished twin, the 4,800-megawatt Medupi power station.
Almost two decades ago, in the last years of the 20th century, and following the end of Apartheid and the first multi-racial elections in 1994, South Africa conceived the idea of building Kusile and Medupi, two of the four largest coal plants in the world.
The proposal gained significant public prominence around the century’s end when South Africa’s bid to develop its own nuclear reactor design, and build several plants, was rejected by the global finance community. Medupi and Kusile, designed with advanced water conservation cooling and pollution control systems, and due to be completed by 2014 and 2015, respectively, at a cost of $US 6 billion each, were greeted as both momentous and logical.
For over a century South Africa’s economy fueled itself with the nation’s ample coal reserves, which today generate 90 percent of the nation’s electricity and 35 percent of its liquid fuel, employ tens of thousands of workers, and consume two percent of the water. Kusile and Medupi were promoted by South Africa’s elected leaders as signature statements of the new era of liberty, the freedom to think big, and the determination to power a modern economy of opportunity that would serve all of the people. That sense of optimism and zeal was reflected in Kusile’s Zulu name, which means “new dawn.”
Over the last several years, dawn has evolved into a gathering storm. Long construction delays and escalating costs, engineering challenges, and the intensifying risk of scarce water have pushed Kusile and its sister plant into the eye of a typhoon of economic, ecological, and social disturbances engulfing South Africa. In so many ways, the troubled development of Kusile and Medupi, and the tumult enveloping South Africa’s deteriorating financial and social condition, are not just mirror images of each other. The two plants, projected to be almost a decade late in completion and $US 20 billion or more over budget, are among the principal causes.
The trouble is not simply a matter of managerial missteps. The vortex of disruption that envelops Medupi and Kusile reflects the clash between the economic and ecological operating systems of two centuries. Kusile and Medupi arguably represent the most prominent global examples of big projects that do not fit their time.
Conceived in the resource-rich, ecologically stable, and capital-abundant 20th century, the two plants were viewed as reasoned answers to South Africa’s growing demand for electricity, and as evidence of a new government’s capacity to execute complex industrial projects.
South Africa sees its global reputation as tied to completing the two plants.
“They must finish and they will finish,” said Jacob Misimango, a 54-year-old business executive in Emalahleni who is seeking permits to start an open cast coal mine outside the city, in part to supply fuel for Kusile. “These projects have drawn the world’s attention. They have to finish. Why?
“Number one. There is a shortage of electricity. The only solution is these stations. We have coal to fuel them.
“Two. It’s important for our government to prove we can do this thing. Our national pride is at stake. Not being able to finish is demoralizing. We must prove we can finish.
“Three. There is a lot of interest on loans that we have to pay back. We need to finish to pay back those loans.”