Power legacy crumbles

2015-01-20 00:00

WITH frequent load shedding forecast for the country this year, it is difficult to believe that there was a time when there was surplus energy on the national grid.

So much energy that the government decommissioned power plants deemed surplus to requirements. That, however, was back in 1985 when “surplus” was a relative term because much of the country was not electrified then.

Among the facilities closed down was the coal-fired Colenso power plant, which once electrified KwaZulu-Natal industries and thousands of homes.

The dilapidated smoke stacks from the plant still dominate the skyline of the central KZN village, but the grounds of the once bustling electricity compound are now silent. Nature is inexorably reclaiming the site, with crows roosting in the upper reaches of the rotting concrete stacks, and vegetation taking over the ground and even some of the buildings.

The only use the plant now serves is as a hunting ground for an informal steel “merchant” who wanders the unkempt grounds looking for scrap metal to hawk — for R2,70 per kilogram.

This is what the 200-megawatt plant, sufficient to supply about 10% of ­Johannesburg’s energy needs today, has been reduced to.

The metal thief cuts a quiet figure in a tattered T-shirt hanging loosely on his back, a worn pick and hacksaw, the tools of his trade, lolling at his sides.

The sound of the harsh scraping of the saw against buried steel is occasionally interrupted only by the cawing of the crows.

“I come here to take the steel away and I sell it. I have been doing this for five years to help my family,” he says.

The 42-year-old man, who requested anonymity for fear that he may be arrested, said his meagre loot from beneath the soil helps put food on the table every day.

“There is almost nothing left from this place. I come here every day to find the pipes that are underneath the ground. When I find them, I take them out to town, but I don’t get a lot, only R2,70 per kilogram,” he says.

His sinewy hands grip the handle of his blade as he hacks at a pipe unearthed near the shell of a pump-house, on the awning of which he has hung his jacket and stowed a small bottle of water.

“There is nothing else for me here. I started looking for metal in the rubble. Now I have come to this place. I don’t know what I will do when this is all gone. I have three children at home.”

Energy specialist Chris Yelland says that coal-fired stations like Colenso are beyond viable salvage.

He says Colenso and others were closed when South Africa had nearly a 40% energy surplus in the last years of apartheid.

“At this point, Eskom and the state stopped building power stations. The Mbeki government didn’t take the looming shortfall seriously and now we are in the middle of shortages. Colenso power station cannot be brought back to service. Once they go offline they rot, get stripped for spares and are beyond salvage,” he said.

He said that building infrastructure based on research and projections was difficult. “We should plan to be flexible because the world changes. We might find that because of the power crisis, our economy will take a nose dive and by the time Medupi, Kusile and Ingula come online, we will have surplus capacity.”

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