First Unit of Long-Delayed, Behemoth Medupi Coal Plant Inaugurated

Power-strapped South Africa on Aug. 30 celebrated the inauguration of its first new power plant in 20 years, putting online Unit 6 of Eskom’s long-delayed 4.8-GW Medupi facility.

Construction of the $7.89 billion power plant near Lephalale in Limpopo province was begun in 2007, but completion has been paralyzed by a number of mishaps, including strikes, technical issues, and cost overruns. Unit 6—originally planned for synchronization in 2011—is nearly four years behind, and the plant won’t be fully operational until the first half of 2019. Unit 5 is expected to come online within eight to nine months. When complete, Medupi will be the world’s largest dry-cooled coal plant and is expected to have a 50-year-lifetime.

Yet, for state-owned Eskom, opening of the first 780-MW unit is a boon (Figure 3). In line with the power plant’s name (a Sepedi word meaning, “rain that soaks parched lands”), Unit 6 will bring the utility’s installed capacity to 45 GW and help relieve power shortages blamed for a recent economic contraction. Its commercial operation coincides with the three-month shutdown of Koeberg, South Africa’s only nuclear plant, for refueling and maintenance.

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3. “Rain that soaks parched lands.” South African utility Eskom on Aug. 30 inaugurated the first 780-MW unit of the 4.8-GW Medupi power station under construction in the country’s coal-rich Limpopo region. Construction on the project began in 2007, but the plant will not be fully completed until 2019. Courtesy: Leita Steel Construction

Observers note that construction of the Medupi plant is a complex undertaking and an engineering and construction feat. The plant covers 3.4 square miles, while its stacks tower 722 feet high.

Kusile, a twin to Medupi under construction in Mpumalanga province, is also far behind schedule. The first 780-MW unit at that 4.8-GW plant will come online in the first half of 2017. South Africa will likely also bring online new capacity from Unit 3 of the 1.2-GW Ingula pumped storage plant in the second half of 2016. Once all three plants are operational, South Africa will be past its energy crisis, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa told the National Council of Provinces in September.

—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor.