Sunday, March 05, 2006

Dramatic deal to limit S. Africa blackouts

ESKOM has struck a barter deal with a French company to avert two months of rolling blackouts in South Africa's Western Cape.

But, even without further mishaps, the rescue plan means that the Western Cape can still expect cuts in peak times until the middle of winter.

Koeberg Nuclear Plant's Unit 1 is down for months because of damage to a 200 ton rotor, and Unit 2 is scheduled to run out of fuel by May. France has one of the massive rotors — and it is not for sale because it represents that country’s only defence should a similar problem occur at a French nuclear power station.

Yesterday, Eskom CEO Thulani Gcabashe confirmed that a barter deal had been struck this week.

He told the Sunday Times that Eskom’s French counterpart, Electricit√© de France, had agreed on Tuesday to release its rotor on condition that the rotor from Koeberg Unit 1, once repaired, would be sent to France in a straight swap.

But Eskom must now hold its breath that there are no problems at power stations in either South Africa or France; it will have to bear the huge cost if a disaster befalls a French power station rotor in the three months before the Koeberg rotor is ready, probably in July.

“All costs are for us — they won’t be paying any costs. We need to stand good for any exposure they may have as a result of not having this [rotor]. There has been an agreement reached for how they would be compensated,” said Gcabashe.

“The difficulty is that they have only one rotor to spare and they have many more units to care for, so you can appreciate the risk to them.”

However, the downside of the rescue plan is that, running on low fuel levels, Koeberg’s Unit 2 must run on just 66% of its power until the middle of May — meaning that Koeberg will be down to just 33% of its total power.

Unit 2 will reduce power this week for the same reason that motorists, discovering that their petrol tanks are on reserve, drive at slower speeds and coast down hills in order to make it to a distant filling station.

Gcabashe said this fuel-saving speed — buying time for the French rotor — would see the Western Cape short of 300MWs of power in the mornings and early evenings, and that “load-shedding” power outages could therefore be expected. They might continue until the middle of July.

However, he said, a campaign, starting tomorrow, to encourage customers to reduce their power usage, could save up to 400MW in the region if successful.

Energy expert Andrew Kenny said a failure to get the French rotor running by the time the fuel for Unit 2 ran out would represent “a far greater disaster”, due to the much higher demand for electricity in winter.

Gcabashe said a national energy-saving campaign would be launched tomorrow, because the safe reserve of 15% between the country’s total power capacity and its winter demand was down to “a very tight margin” of 8%.

Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin admitted on Friday that government capacity planning had been “two years out of line” and that, “with hindsight”, Eskom should have been allowed to build new power stations in 2004.

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