Bearing witness to the rise and fall of a once booming town

2015-02-03 00:00

THE central KwaZulu-Natal town of Colenso was brought to its knees and all but deserted when Eskom closed its coal-fired Colenso power station in 1970.

Now, however, there is hope of rejuvenation, along with a partial answer to the country’s electricity woes, with plans in the works for a R12 billion power station in the town.

The discovery of coal deposits in the hills surrounding Colenso has given birth to Colenso Power, which hopes to become an independent power producer supplying electricity to the struggling Eskom.

The parastatal has predicted widespread load shedding this year as it works to carry out desperately needed maintenance on its overburdened generating infrastructure.

The grid was pushed to its limit on Sunday after a single unit at the Koeberg power station in Cape Town, capable of generating 900 MW, had to be shut down for emergency maintenance.

The capacity of the national power grid has been severely impeded by the delayed completion of three major power stations.

While Eskom scrambles to get Medupi, Kusile and Ingula power stations online, independent electricity producer Colenso Power could be adding 1 000 MW to the national grid as soon as 2018.

The current total capacity of the South African electricity grid is 42 000 MW.

Colenso Power CEO John James said the discovery of sulphur-rich coal and the power crisis of 2008 had prompted the move towards independent power.

“Our background is in mining and during exploration on the outskirts of Colenso we discovered rich coal deposits.

“Samples revealed that the coal is high in sulphur, which is typically difficult to export. Around that time the country and the economy were crippled by blackouts and we decided to explore other options,” he said.

“Our overtures with power providers revealed that the technology used to burn the kind of coal which is sulphur-rich is widely in use and that the prospect of a power station again in Colenso using this technology was extremely feasible.

“This is due to relatively low mining costs and the fact that the coal fields are ideally placed near the Tugela River, which would supply water in abundance for the generation of electricity.”

According to MiningWeekly, Colenso Power secured 19 000 ha under various prospecting rights and undertook drilling works in Colenso.

An area of 2 500 ha has been ringfenced to date for the power project. Initial geological surveys reported that the ringfenced area had indicated and inferred reserves of about 40 million tons of anthracite coal resources.

James said Colenso Power had engaged extensively with the provincial and national governments and applied for environmental impact assessments and feasibility studies.

“With the request of the state, we amended the studies to encompass a capacity of 1 000 MW. Our EIAs started some months ago and we have identified a site. The old site is too small to be refurbished.”

Eskom is in the process of releasing a request for proposals from independent power producers to provide electricity generated from coal.

Should their proposal be accepted by Eskom, Colenso Power would immediately commence with the first phase of construction, employing a workforce of nearly 3 000 people.

James said there was space for independent power providers and that the town of Colenso would reap the benefits.

“More than providing power for the country, it will have a massive socio-economic impact on the town of Colenso. The town is on its knees and if our project gets final approval, it will change things completely,” he said.

The return of major industry to Colenso would bring welcome respite to the few businesses that staved off complete closure when the village, dependent on Eskom and its staff for business, teetered on the brink of collapse.

South African Independent Power Producers Association chair Sisa Njikelana said that without sufficient power there would be no economic growth.

“There needs to be sufficient power available to stimulate economic growth; not just to allow space for Eskom to do their maintenance and to avoid load shedding, but to allow the manufacturing sector to grow.

“There needs to be confidence that there is sufficient power so that investors take the required steps towards economic development and job creation towards a thriving and equitable South Africa,” he said.

“IPPs are going to play a highly significant role and make a meaningful contribution in the mitigation of the current crisis, given their ability to install power within shorter periods.

“This contribution will be part of a system-wide focus on improving the total electricity supply system for the country and region.

“The contribution from IPPs will therefore be in addition to Eskom’s focus on their maintenance plans and new-build, as well as demand-side measures — an all-encompassing solution is required,” Njikelana said.

Neither Eskom nor the Emnambithi District Municipality responded to questions on the matter.


Sunny’s story

SUNNY Naidoo cuts a weary figure as he leans on the scuffed glass counter of his shop, which his grandfather opened in 1916.

The 77-year-old, born in the modest home that adjoins the general dealer, has watched the rise and fall of Colenso from behind his shop counter.

When the town boomed in the 1940s, white civil servants brought with them welcome business.

“When Eskom was here, things were good. They had an office around the corner and we used to sell 60 loaves of bread a day just to them. We even did deliveries and people got their groceries at the door,” he said.

However, the Colenso power station was decommissioned in 1970 and has fallen to ruin, the hopes of the town evaporating with the last bursts of steam that surged from the stacks.

Today, the town, built around the industry of the power station, is all but deserted. Dilapidated stores line St George’s Street, Colenso’s main thoroughfare, their floors now home to impressive growths of weeds, and their collapsed roofs and empty window frames testament to the town’s deterioration.

V.G. Naidoo and Sons is one of the few businesses that weathered the storm.

“When Eskom left, this town fell apart and became what it is now. This place is broken. We have struggled and we are lucky to still be here in business.

“We used to sell to white people and now we sell to blacks,” he said.

News of a new power station in the town is understandably welcome — “It will only be good for us.”

Auto electrician Reuben Hlubi and his employees and friends were enjoying a game of cards on the pavement outside what used to be the town’s Spar. There is no longer a store front, and only a mass of weeds where there were once aisles and shelves filled with goods. “Business here is slow, but we are doing what we can. We are playing cards now because there is no work,” said Hlubi.

A draft town planning report, which was commissioned by the Emnambithi-Ladysmith Local Municipality, notes the shutdown of Eskom’s local operation as one of the chief reasons for the town’s decline. “It was once a functional borough but could not sustain its character due to closures and ceasing of operations experienced in the government parastatals, specifically present day entities known as Eskom and Transnet. Over the recent years the town has taken on a poor image characterised by very marginal public investment, lack of private investment, and rapidly deteriorating standards of living of residents,” the report, compiled by Sivest, reads.

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