10 October 2013

South Africa: Medupi Power Sation Blues

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The Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises visited Eskom's Medupi power station and observed the labour unrest that was taking place and its consequences. Yoliswa Landu reports.

Medupi is a 4 764 MW coal-fired power station near Lephalale in Limpopo Province. Construction began in 2007 and there are currently 16 800 workers on site. It is the first South African power station to employ supercritical technology, and is one of the world's largest dry-cooled stations, which means it will be much more efficient than older coal-fired stations, use less water and produce lower carbon emissions for each unit of power it generates.

During the oversight visit, members of the Committee received reports of labour unrest that had broken out. Eskom reported that on-site construction at Medupi power plant had to come to a halt because employers refused to pay workers upfront an additional allowance for travel to and from work. A violent protest erupted in which between 500 and 1 000 workers threw stones and set two vehicles alight. While the Committee was inspecting Medupi, the site tour had to be halted for the unrest to be sorted out. "The information that we received from labour representatives and Eskom was that the commuting allowance had been addressed. Employees were informed that they would be reimbursed for travel," said the Chairperson of the Committee Mr Peter Maluleka.

It seemed there had been a misunderstanding regarding implementation of the commuting allowance. Mr Maluleka condemned the violent nature of the protests, which resulted in work stoppage. He encouraged unions to use dispute resolution procedures as agreed between the parties. Eskom and all those involved needed to act against criminal elements, he said. Workers caused havoc on site, on something that was already resolved between labour and management. "Whilst we agree in using strike action to raise genuine concerns, what cannot be accepted is the violence that comes with protests," he added.

The original date for the first synchronisation when power would flow to the grid was initially estimated as July 2012. It was pushed back to July 2013, and again to December 2013. In its update, Eskom confirmed that the December 2013 target date was unlikely to be met. The CEO Mr Brian Dames said the boiler and control and instrumentation issues could not be resolved in time for Medupi to deliver power to the grid by 2013. "We are communicating this pro-actively, in line with our commitment to keep South Africa informed on the progress of the build projects," Mr Dames said.

"A more realistic target for the first synchronisation of Unit 6 to the grid is the second half of 2014. This is based on independent and internal assessments of the project which Eskom has undertaken. The revised schedule is based on certain assumptions and depends on the success of interventions to ensure critical timelines on the boiler and control and instrumentation contracts are met in the next few months. There is also [the question of] the stability of the labour force," he added.

The Medupi power station has an expected lifespan of more than 50 years.

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