Doubts on power plan

2017-11-13 13:30
An elaborate plan to reimagine the City’s power needs will also look at solar lighting.

An elaborate plan to reimagine the City’s power needs will also look at solar lighting. (Ian Carbutt)

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A ground-breaking project to transform Pietermaritzburg’s energy use and infrastructure has won an award nationally, but has also raised eyebrows here.

An article in a “sponsored feature” in the Mail and Guardian recently boasted that the Msunduzi project was the winner in the Greening the Future: Innovative climate financing category.

The project of the Gauteng-based Mponeng Holdings makes some bold claims, perhaps the most dramatic of which is that “Msunduzi residents will live in a carbon-free environment”.

But it seems nothing visible has been done yet to implement this new plan, despite the tender having been awarded in 2012, and councillors and officials approached by The Witness bore no knowledge of it or its works having been through any committee that they remembered.

It also seems that none of what has been proposed in this project has been taken into account by those planning the energy needs of the city.

At the mayor’s recent press conference where he raised his five-year plan to help the ailing infrastructure, no reference was made to this project.

When we approached him for comment, Joshua Mkhonto of Mponeng Holdings was adamant a “carbon-free environment” could be achieved, but then admitted, “Probably not 100%”.

The article in the M&G said when Msunduzi was “looking at awarding a tender for the re-evaluation of their electricity output, they were intrigued by the proposal put forth by Mponeng Holdings”.

However, other sources associated with the City are equally intrigued, because they say they’ve never heard of it. The project, in a nutshell, aims to assist the City by replacing old electricity infrastructure, building a solar power plant, replacing lighting in the city, and helping to introduce smart meters into homes.

They will also get involved in a waste to energy project and the upskilling of “youth and veterans”.

And while the M&G article says finance for the project “will come through multiple stakeholders including the municipality, national departments and provincial government departments”, Mkhonto said in response to questions from The Witness, that the project would be implemented at no cost to council.

Asked to explain this, he said, “It’s an innovative funding model. It is a zero capex project. We will help the municipality apply for the grants and then when they get the grants they pay us.

“Some money is channelled through the municipality and some will be released to us. The DTI has a critical infrastructure grant for identified interventions. Our programme seeks to access that money,” he said.

Mkhonto was quoted saying the company would be doing a “complete re-evaluation and retrofit” of LED lighting in the city.

When asked by The Witness what this would entail, he said “street lighting, traffic lights and general domestic, residential and commercial LED retrofitting” was identified as part of their scope.

Mkhonto stressed again that “no member of the residential household will pay for any roll-out technology. The project is financed by the service provider.”

However, a source close to the municipality has questioned the premise of the funding, saying he believed there was no way council would not be paying for some of the work.

He said he feared the residents of the city would ultimately pay for this from their own pockets. He also claimed the funding model had never been tested before.

“That’s not true,” said Mkhonto. “It’s a combination of grants. We have elaborated on this in a letter sent to the municipal manager on how we’ll gather funding and are waiting for their response.”

The source claimed the project was previously presented to council before but then rejected.

Mkhonto said they had presented to the previous Exco and were now negotiating with the current council around the SLA. “We’re waiting for the go-ahead.”

Asked why he thought this project was not included in the City’s five-year plan revealed by the mayor to improve the electricity infrastructure, Mkhonto said he was not sure.

“We are still waiting for Brenden [Sivparsad, the acting general manager for Infrastructure Services at Msunduzi] to give us the go-ahead. We will feed into their plan. It’s in the IDP for 2030 plans to be an energy efficient city.”

Commenting on allegations that this is an overly ambitious plan, Mkhonto acknowledged that while it was not the first time they were implementing such a project, it is the biggest undertaking they have done with a municipality.

“We have done energy efficiencies projects in industry for example. It is possible if it’s implemented with the all the stakeholders.

“Msunduzi could be the next City of Cape Town in terms of how they deal with energy efficiencies. We’ll experiment.”

Mponeng Holding’s strategy, according to the M&G article, is to modernise Msunduzi’s electricity distribution network.

This they’ll achieve by replacing Msunduzi’s transformers with “more efficient new ones, plus connect with” a company, who are working on smart meters, Mkhonto told the M&G.

When asked why this was necessary, Mkhonto said the Msunduzi power network was “on the verge of collapse”.

He said of the 44 high voltage transformers in the city, 29 had reached their lifespan and he claimed they had not even had an oil check in the last five years.

“It’s serious.”

He said that they had 20 energy efficient projects for full council to approve.

“Some have gone to Exco. We are waiting for the go ahead before we implement them.”

He said there had been some delays because of instability in senior management posts.

Mkhonto said they had developed the financial model to help council deal with the R181 million electricity losses reported by the auditor-general.

Mkhonto was also quoted in the M&G article saying that “ultimately we want to re-evaluate the city’s energy consumption across the board”.

The scope of the project

He said the proposal for the city even extended to “looking at the fuel type and usage on Bus Rapid Transport buses [yet to be introduced here], educating the city’s residents and community at large on how to access the local 75MW solar PV plant [yet to be built] and empowering a new workforce by educating people about recycling and converting waste to energy”.

When asked for details on the solar power plant in this quote, Mkhonto said, “We are currently in discussion with the tribal authority (a certain family that have access to land within the municipal boundaries) and conducting pre-feasibility studies regarding the development of the plant and all parties involved are bound by confidentiality”.

He added that the plant will be financed by a private investor and will be built within Msunduzi Municipality.

Mkhonto added that there is also a waste to energy component to the project.

“...We are in discussion with the waste pickers to be incorporated into the project where we will separate the recyclables and the rest of the non-recyclables will be gasified. A pre-feasibility study has been finalised, and we are awaiting council to approve it.”

Mkhonto said the tender was awarded in April 2012, and the service level agreement was concluded in September 2015.

The City responds

In response to a list of questions from The Witness about this project, Msunduzi Municipality spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha would only say, “The council can confirm that we do have a service level agreement with the service provider which outlines the services that can be rendered to the municipality with specific reference to energy sufficiency.

“The actual implementation of such project is still subject to the approval and discretion of management structures and full council.”

The award

Aseked about the award Mponeng Holdings won for this project, Mkhonto said the project was nominated for the Innovative Climate Financing Category in the Greening The Future 2017 Mail and Guardian Awards.

“We are honoured to be nominated and are excited that we emerged victorious.

“We aim to celebrate such an honour by making sure other municipalities approach the energy efficiency project in a holistic manner rather than in a piecemeal approach.”

The tender

The tender for the Request for Proposal – exploration and implementation of efficient energy initiatives within Msunduzi, was advertised in 2011.

According to Mkhonto, the contract is for 36 months. Twelve months have already lapsed “as some work has been done — the pre-feasibility studies …”

He said the solar plant pre-feasibility studies report is yet to be tabled to council for approval.

They also want the municipality to:

Give the project developers the right to put electricity into the municipality’s electricity distribution network; and

They want the municipality to sell the electricity to residents.

The project developers will see that all environmental impact assessment issues are approved by the Department of Environment Affairs, and this will also be ratified by the city council.

Mkhonto said they have approached the Green Energy Fund as the project has a component of green jobs.

He said the 2016/17 IDP states that the city will have about 30% of its electricity generated from renewables.

He said the service level agreement provided that the project will be implemented at no cost to council and the service provider is expected to explore, finance, design and implement and maintain any identified interventions.

“It is expressly stated that all this intervention will require the approval of council in order for implementation to take place or proceed,” he said.

All the buzz words

While the claims of this project are ambitious, they are bang on in terms of political correctness and buzz words, according to one source.

Here’s an example from the article: “Key to the project is a programme to empower local youth and veterans with various skills. They will become project implementers who are up-skilled and can in turn train others to become part of the ongoing maintenance of the project,” said Joshua Mkhonto, of Mponeng Holdings, adding they are “commited to work with the locals and where there are not enough skills, we commit to train them”.

“We are committed to job creation and empowerment of local communities. Our main focus is to develop a sustainable energy management project that seeks to lower carbon emissions and thereby sustainably conserve our environment.”

The green element

In the article Mkhonto says the developmental impact associated with the project will enable communities to live in a carbon-free environment, with a green energy supply.

When asked if this was achievable, he said he believed it was.

“Msunduzi Vision 2030 states it aims to be a green city of choice and intends to consume about 30% of the energy from green initiatives such as solar pv [photovoltaic], natural gas and municipal solid waste to energy.

“A zero carbon environment run entirely on renewables, has no carbon footprint and will not cause harm to the planet.

“This sound ambitious but if [we] look at our South African energy mix about 80% of our energy is through coal, the balance is gas, renewables, diesel and other.

“Yes, it is achievable but cannot be an instant overnight success, it requires an array of stakeholders to work together to achieve this bold, yet ambitious vision or initiative,” said Mkhonto.

He stressed they are “pro residents and the project is for the betterment of communities”.

“The project has a private investor and various funding models have been finalised and awaiting council to approve it.”

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  solar energy

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