Cautious optimism as Morupule B undergoes rebirth


After a period of haggling over terms, a major overhaul has kicked off at Morupule B to get the 600MW plant fully functional for the first time in its seven-year life. The Botswana Power Corporation is confident lessons have been learnt. Cynics are shaking their heads Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports

PALAPYE: The list of experts the Botswana Power Corporation (BPC) has brought in for the $120 million overhaul of Morupule B is extensive. It’s an army of experts charged with one mission: ensuring the mistakes of before are not repeated in the overhaul.

According to available documents, Morupule B’s failure to launch after its completion in 2012 was because of design, construction and quality issues in key components at the four units.

The plant suffered and continues to experience frequent breakdowns, forcing the BPC to rely on more costly emergency diesel power or even costlier imports from South Africa. The damage to the economy caused over the years is nearly incalculable, with loadshedding haunting local businesses and households between 2012 and 2015 when an interim solution implemented by the BPC at Morupule B eased the crisis.

That interim solution reached the end of its practicability recently and the need for the total overhaul became impossible to ignore.

Originally, the overhaul was due to begin last January, but the BPC and the Chinese contractor responsible for financing and undertaking the overhaul, have been haggling. China National Electric Engineering Co (CNEEC) built the troubled power station and is contractually bound to finance the remedial overhaul.

From the design and construction of replacement components, to the governance on the site, BPC and CNEEC butted heads until a final agreement was reached last year. Key issues that afflicted Morupule B were around the Fluidised Bed Heat Exchangers (FBHE) and the boilers, the latter plagued by the fact that they could not expand, and that the insulation and refraction was substandard.

For the overhaul, the Chinese insisted on their designs and construction.  BPC and its army of advisers prevailed with their preferred designs and supervision of construction and installation.

CNEEC also wanted to shut down the entire plant and do the remedial work, then start it up again, which would be a cheaper option for the overhaul. The BPC prevailed in its insistence that each unit be taken down and revamped for a year, tested under a three-month trial period before being put back online.

“At one point in 2016, the contractor was insisting on a design for the new FBHEs, which has never been proven,” recalls BPC general manager (Generation), Zwelithini Witbooi.

“The design could not be found anywhere else in the world.

“With the new agreement we signed, our owners engineer, Fichtner GmBH & Co, is empowered to even stop the construction of a component if they are not happy.

“Fitchner is also at the manufacturing workshop in China checking all the work on the parts for the remedial work and we should not have the same worries that we had before in this project.”

Alongside Fitchner, the BPC’s army also includes Shanghai Power Supervision and Consultancy who will supervise testing of refractory during manufacturing, and Global Energy Interconnection Research Institute Co. Ltd to oversee the installation of the refractory.

Others due on site include manufacturers representatives, commissioning and performance test teams, trial operation team and China Design Institute representatives.

The Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security has also established an umbrella oversight body, the Project Reference Group to facilitate the delivery of the services by project companies from ministries and departments.  Group members include the ministry, Department of Environmental Affairs and the Immigration ministry.

Witbooi, a former Eskom manager credited with turning around that utility’s troubled stations, believes that while CNEEC behaved ‘criminally’ in some instances, the situation can be turned around.

“If we can address the issues around the FBHEs, boilers and challenges around abrasion, resistance and insulation of the boilers, then we can confidently say we will have a plant that can serve the needs of Batswana,” Witbooi says.

CNEEC, which has deployed 135 workers on site, is not only under pressure from BPC’s army, but as a state-owned entity, Beijing has also expressed its irritation with how Morupule B was done. The Chinese contractor, which has previously blamed poor coordination with the BPC, tight timelines and natural phenomena for the delayed completion of the plant, will not make a profit out of the Morupule B contract. The state-owned CNEEC is overhauling Morupule B out of its own pocket and to the specifications of the BPC and its experts. And many eyes are carefully watching the power plant’s rebirth.

The World Bank, which pumped $136 million into Morupule B and previously said CNEEC should never have qualified to be given the project, is chief amongst the watchers.  Eskom, the BPC’s go-to supplier, is hoping to cash in on the overhaul, as the local utility could require higher imports. While the work is ongoing, the country will rely on the 120MW Morupule A power station and two emergency diesel plants with output of 195MW.

The other units not being refurbished at Morupule B will also support while the option for imports will also be available.

Eskom, which expected the overhaul to start in January 2018, is hungry for the business. “International sales volumes for the year ended March 2019 were below target and decreased by 18% due in part to Botswana deferring a planned outage to refurbish their generation plant and therefore purchasing less electricity from Eskom than originally anticipated,” the South African giant said in its recent financials. However, the most important onlookers are Batswana for whom a functioning Morupule B means stable electricity supply and the benefits of redirecting BPC subsidies to other needs.

Having become accustomed to more stable electricity supplies since 2015, consumers would be shocked if a botched overhaul took the country backwards, instead of forward.

“We have learnt,” Witbooi says.

“Previously we were a bit too trusting because we thought we had someone who knew what they were doing, but clearly they did not.”

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