Between October 1 and 10, all four units at the 600MW Morupule B power station were shut down due to the defects that have dogged the country’s flagship source of electricity since establishment.
Hardly any consumers felt the impact and in fact, most carried on about their business without any idea that the Palapye station was down.
A few years ago, such a situation would have caused a national crisis, with the Botswana Power Corporation (BPC) sharing the little electricity available by cutting off and switching on alternating areas. Loadshedding, the official name for the alternating “cutting off and switching on” reared its head in Botswana in 2008 on power generation and import shortfalls and has frequently returned to vex households and businesses.
Panic usually accompanies loadshedding, at household level, amongst businesses and certainly amongst the executives at Motlakase House for whom any electricity crisis is accompanied by 24-hour shifts as well as the real fear of a public backlash and the inevitable political blamestorm.
And yet, Morupule crashed in October and recovered to its current two operating units, with nary a ripple.
If the matter was one of the authorities simply evolving nerves of steel over the years, then the fact that loadshedding returned to South Africa in late November, would have undoubtedly sparked frenzy. South Africa supplies up to 150MW of Botswana’s average electricity demand of 400MW and shortfalls in that country have previously echoed across the border.
BPC CEO, Stefan Schwarzfischer is the picture of calm personified.
“I heard that rumours are spreading that we will face loadshedding,” he says.
“In the last four years, there has been no loadshedding. In the next four years, there’ll be no loadshedding. Let’s get that quite clear.”
The CEO’s confidence comes from a massive US$1.2 billion overhaul that Morupule B began recently, which involve taking down each unit for more than a year and essentially rebuilding it. After four years, the exercise is expected to produce a nearly brand new Morupule B, with the pesky issue of technology utilised and quality of components, sorted out. The exercise will be supported by the presence of Morupule A (132MW), two emergency diesel plants (195MW) the contract with Eskom, more than 70MW from Mozambique and access to supplies from the Southern African Power Pool.
The same sources of supply are why Batswana did not notice that Morupule B crashed in October. The breakdown of units at Morupule B initially automatically triggered the emergency diesel plants, before BPC moved to the less expensive option of imports from the region. The two plants, located at Matshelagabedi and Orapa, operate at 248 thebe per kilowatt hour (t/kwh) compared to about 78t/kwh for imports.
The other reason the October crash did not result in panic is the nature of the supply contract Botswana now
“Under this one, whenever we need power, we can buy as much as we want (up to 150MW) and Eskom needs to provide that power. It’s an obligation and they cannot say we don’t want to provide it,” explains Schwarzfischer.
The country’s electricity supply at present consists of two units running at Morupule B two units providing 260MW with another on maintenance and due back by December 15. The fourth is already under the US$1.2 billion remediation exercise. In addition, BPC has access to Eskom and Mozambique supply and an effort is underway to secure higher supply from the east African country in order to further buttress support to the national grid during the remediation exercise.
Schwarzfischer says any blackouts customers experience going forward will be the result of faults and system outages, not loadshedding or inadequate supply. The BPC, he says, is spending P275 million to bolster its distribution network and reduce outages.
The CEO says P73 million will be used to upgrade transformers, P37m to upgrade lines, P75m for switch gears and P50m for cables.
“We also need to replace 4,000 poles and bush clearing of 3,000 square kilometres also needs to be done.
“This will provide us with a better performance of our distribution network and you’ll see the effect later.
“All these investments we are doing are to reduce faults and the hassle for our customers.”
Not everything is rosy however. The scheduled recommissioning of Morupule A has been delayed by technical failures, which some in the industry describe as major. The 30-year-old power station has been out of service since 2012 undergoing renovation.
Schwarzfischer says the power station will return by May. “Morupule A right now is ready for operation, but the four units need to run through additional safety checks especially on the high pressure pipes,” he says.
“These in the past have not been 100% safe for operation and that’s a priority for us. We will not start them until we are 100% sure they are ready for operation.”
For consumers, who battled through the loadshedding era, the CEO’s words may not be enough to calm the sense of déjà vu. The proof of the pudding will have to be in the eating.