Power to the people

Post-apartheid South Africa has embarked on a path to growth, and its push for mass electrification and new nuclear energy options is fuelling technological innovation. Jon Excell reports.

When riots erupted in the townships around Johannesburg earlier this year, the dreams and aspirations of post-apartheid South Africa had rarely looked bleaker.

But huge though the country’s social and economic problems are, there is still plenty to get excited about in a nation embarked on its long march towards equality. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in its rich and varied engineering and technology sectors.

South Africa remains the economic powerhouse of Africa, responsible for about 28 per cent of the continent’s GDP, 40 per cent of its industrial output, more than half of all generated electricity, and 45 per cent of all mineral production.

Since 2000, the economy has grown by an average of 4.1 per cent a year. Despite an economic downturn caused largely by the energy crisis, this growth is predicted to continue, but at a slower rate.

South Africa’s status as gateway to Africa, coupled with ongoing upgrades to its telecoms, transport and energy infrastructures (the nuts and bolts of equality) combine to make it a fertile and exciting climate for engineering innovation.

The biggest industry, biggest employer, and source of most of South Africa’s wealth remains mining. Its huge reserves of minerals, including manganese ore, platinum and gold, accounted for one fifth of total exports in 2006.

The increasing demand for commodities and improvements to safety and working conditions are a big driver of innovation.

Associated engineering firms, such as Cape Town-based Reutech Radar Systems (The Engineer, 14 July), are also important contributors to the economy.

Like all of South Africa’s leading industries, mining has been particularly hard hit by the energy crisis. The effort to address this characterises much of the country’s most vigorous engineering activity.

The country’s rapid post-apartheid growth, and a mass electrification programme designed to give everyone access to electricity by 2012, led last year to demand outstripping supply.

Faced with a situation that makes the UK’s energy problems look like a walk in the park, Eskom — the state energy company — embarked on a huge upgrade to the country’s electricity infrastructure. It has ambitious plans to double its total generating capacity to 80,000MW over the next 20 years.

A new generation of coal-fired power stations, the reopening of a series of power stations that were mothballed in 1990s, and two new open cycle gas turbine plants will all help boost capacity.

Although up to 80 per cent of the country’s energy now comes from coal the nuclear option, as in the UK, is also on the agenda. New nuclear power stations, including what could be the world’s first world’s first pebble bed modular reactor, are expected to make up about half of this new capacity.

These reactors will add to what is now the continent’s sole nuclear power station — at Koeberg in the Western Cape.

The country’s geography, and the large distances between its urban areas, make it the ideal candidate for pebble bed reactors, which are ideally suited for providing power for town or cities.

If the existing programme is successful the plan is to build up to 30 reactors in South Africa, and ultimately export the country’s expertise in this area overseas.

This has led to a rapid growth in the numerous areas of the engineering industry that develop technology for power transmission and distribution.

For instance, leading African cable manufacturer Aberdare, faced with replacing what it describes as a creaking infrastructure originally designed for just eight million people, now manufactures enough power cable each year to stretch around the Earth eight times.

Another related area, where South Africa has become a world leader, is in the development of pre-paid metering technology, developed to ensure that the poorest sections of society pay for their electricity.

Here in the UK, pre-paid metering has something of a stigma attached to it, and its association with poverty has hampered its roll-out elsewhere.

However, Ian Craig, managing director of Cape Town pre-paid specialist Syntell, reported that by consciously aiming the technology at all sectors of society, South Africa has effectively discouraged these negative perceptions.

As a result, there is evidence that consumers are becoming more aware of their energy use, an important factor in addressing the country’s energy difficulties.

Beyond energy and mining, the other big market is telecoms, which generated an estimated £8bn of revenue in 2007.

Following recent market deregulation, it is relatively easy for foreign companies to enter this market.

With less than four per cent of Africans having internet access, broadband penetration at one per cent, and only 10 per cent of South Africa’s population having access to fixed lines, the opportunities are clear.