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ESCOM 1960 - 1969 - The years of blossoming - "And then there was one"
 
 


ESCOM was mourning the passing of the company’s second and third chairmen, Mr AM Jacobs and Dr JT Hattingh, both of whom died in 1963.  In that year, ESCOM also said goodbye to the Sabie River power station (Eskom’s first permanent power station) after Sabie Undertaking had been incorporated into Witbank Undertaking.  But, as Frank Herbert said, “there is no real ending.  It’s just the place where you stop the story”.  In 1963, ESCOM continued apace as the organisation set about meeting burgeoning demand.

Ingagane power station (near Newcastle in KZN) was commissioned in 1963 and consisted of five 100 MW sets. At this stage, the Rand and Natal systems were not yet linked, and so Ingagane was connected to the Southern Natal system. Work had also begun on the construction of three major power stations: Camden,Grootvlei, and Hendrina. These three stations began commercial service in 1967, 1969, and 1970, respectively. They all used 200 MW sets, which were “technological dinosaurs” (dinosaurs were around about 220 million years ago and lasted for about 160 million years before dying out). The problem with these sets was that they did not make use of the latest power generation technology in reheat cycles and were, thus, costlier to build and less reliable than those that did boast this cutting-edge technology.




 Hendrina power station was South Africa’s last to use non reheat generation sets. It had a turbine hall that was 500 m long, and some staff even used bicycles to get around. Hendrina got its coal from the nearby Optimum Colliery, South Africa’s first large-scale opencast coal mine. 

Quality coal was exported, and a washing plant separated out discarded (lower-grade) coal, which was burnt by Hendrina. Eskom shared in the large profits generated by exporting the coal, which meant that Hendrina’s average coal price was kept very low – the cheapest on Eskom’s system. However, there was a price to be paid, as the low-grade coal contained abrasive stone that put wear on the mills and the boilers. Improved mining (and generation) techniques eventually sorted out the problem. The reheat technology was finally used on Arnot power station, which began commercial service in 1971. As a result of this improved technology, steam pressure increased from 10 MPa to 16 MPa, while steam temperature decreased from 538°C to 510°C. The lower temperature meant that less specialised steel was used in the boiler, which led to cost savings and an impressive (forits day) efficiency of 33%. At around the same time, ESCOM also built Grootvlei power station,near Balfour. Grootvlei had to get its water from the already heavily taxed Vaal Dam, and thus, it was the obvious choice for South Africa’s first dry-cooling towers – which were used for Units 5 and 6, while Units 1 to 4 used conventional wet-cooling towers. 

As is mostly the case for a power utility, the great x factor in making problems go away and dreams come true was technology. For ESCOM, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the dream of a national grid come to fruition at last. 

Transmission technology had advanced sufficiently. Long transmission lines of 275 kV and 400 kV were now viable. ESCOM went to great lengths to plan an interconnected network: the ultimate pool. The massive difference between coal costs in the Cape and the Eastern Transvaal (R2 a ton versus R7 a ton) was a big factor in pushing things forward. In 1969, ESCOM began constructing the network in 300 km stages. By August 1970, the transmission line running from Camden power station (near Ermelo) to Cape Town had been completed. It took a little longer to connect the Natal and Transvaal systems, as the Orange River Project caused shortages of steel and cement. But a 400 kV line linking Camden and Ingagane was completed in October 1971. A 1971 amendment to the Electricity Act gave ESCOM the authority to amalgamate the power resources of two or more undertakings and to supply electricity from one undertaking to another. This paved the way for the establishment of the Central Generating Undertaking (CGU) on 1 January 1972, which enabled ESCOM to operate all its power stations and other power plants as an integrated system. However, it was only in ESCOM’s 50th year (1973), after extending the network to the Eastern Cape, that a national grid was finally achieved. All ESCOM’s power stations were transferred from the regional undertakings to the CGU (under the expert guidance of Ian McRae). 

Pooling meant that ESCOM could benefit from economies of scale, which meant lower electricity prices. The more expensive coastal stations could be used for peak load and emergencies, while the country ran primarily off cheap Highveld coal. 

ESCOM could now decommission some older stations, and hence, Brakpan, the VFP’s first power station, was closed in 1970. Rosherville, which had also produced compressed air, was decommissioned in 1966 and turned into a central workshop complex. The mines then made their own compressed air. Meanwhile, Simmerpan​, which had been the VFP’s control centre since 1912, received a revamp in 1968 becoming the control centre for the entire country’s grid featuring world-class communications technology. It was also the site for laboratories and workshops for monitoring and maintaining the transmission network. 

The national grid brought cost-saving economies of scale into the system, which meant that municipalities were better off abandoning their own base load power generation and rather looked at buying in bulk from ESCOM. The Johannesburg City Council tried to buck the trend in 1969 when it applied to build its own 1 000 MW power station. In the end, it could not secure permission to do so, and this was the last time a South African municipality applied to build its own base load station. 

South Africa had shown that a national grid was the best way to utilise power resources for the benefit of the entire country. The next step would obviously be to connect the entire region. This is yet to happen in any meaningful sense, but back in 1964, the South African Parliament recognised the opportunity of regional power integration. The Electricity Act was amended to authorise ESCOM to supply electricity in bulk to “adjoining territories”. So it was that, in 1967, Lesotho received ESCOM power via an 88 kV line from Ladybrand in the Free State. The border town of Ressano Garcia in Mozambique received ESCOM power in 1969, and in 1972, a 275 kV line, supplying 20 MW, began sending electricity to the capital, Lourenço Marques (now Maputo). Swaziland began receiving ESCOM power in 1973. 

Plans were also afoot to send power in the other direction. In the 1960s, the Portuguese and South African governments began plans to dam the mighty Zambezi River in the north of Mozambique. 

The ideal spot for this was a narrow gorge known as Cabora Bassa (later changed to Cahora Bassa ​after the Komati accord had been signed), situated in Tete Province. It was reckoned that Cabora Bassa could produce as much as 4 000 MW, and in 1969,the SouthAfrican and Portuguese governments signed a contract which gave the go-ahead for the damming of the Zambezi River and locked South Africa into buying 680 MW in 1975 and 1 500 MW by 1980 at a rate of 0.3 c per kWh. It was slow progress negotiating with the Portuguese, and the civil war in Mozambique meant this was always going to be a tricky project. However, things were progressing rather more smoothly with a local hydroelectric project. In 1966, excavations began on the Hendrik Verwoerd Hydro Station (now known as Gariep). Five years later (1971), the station started feeding power into the grid. On completion, Hendrik Verwoerd would add 360 MW to the grid and provide the country with useful back-up in the event of emergencies and peak demand. Unfortunately, South Africa is not well suited to the development of hydroelectric power, and when it comes to finding alternatives to coal, nuclear provides better potential. In the early 1960s, the government had already approved an atomic energy research and development programme, and this received a boost when a research reactor, known as Safari and supplied by the US, was installed at Pelindaba. Scientists and engineers were sent overseas for training, and research continued under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Board (AEB). 

In 1966, ESCOM purchased the farm Duynefontein, 30 km outside of Cape Town, as a possible site for a nuclear power station. In 1972, the decision was made to construct Koeberg nuclear power station at that site. 

By that stage, the country was facing an oil embargo from the Arab states, and the government was understandably fearful of running out of energy. There was also the matter of nuclear weapons. No one is sure whether South Africa’s nuclear energy programme was driven by the government’s desire to equip itself with an atomic bomb – but in any event, in the same year that ESCOM decided to build Koeberg, the government initiated a nuclear weapons programme. Happily; South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons in the 1990s, and Koeberg continues to supply the country with 1 840 MW of energy. Meanwhile, the 1960s saw high levels of growth for the South African economy and a steep increase in the demand for power. In 1970, sales rose by 10.7%, the highest surge since 1955. In 1971, ESCOM needed R175 million for its expansion programme, but there was a world shortage of capital, interest rates were high, and South Africa’s reputation as a racist state meant increasing isolation from capital markets. All the hard work ESCOM was putting into bringing down the cost of power was being eroded by the high cost of borrowing. The solution was the 1971 Electricity Amendment Act, which allowed ESCOM to raise capital from its own revenue. ESCOM duly set up a Capital Development Fund (CDF) and began to do just that. The CDF meant that tariffs could be used to build up capital and, thus, protect consumers from large increases in the future. 

 

ESCOM’s annual power sales reached 16 000 million units in 1960. These sales showed an increase of 133% over a ten-year period. Generation plant capacity had increased by 130%, while R376 million had been spent on new power stations, transmission and distribution systems. Dr J T Hattingh​’s term of office as ESCOM’s Chairman ended in 1962. He was succeeded by Dr R L Straszacker

 
Grootvlei Power Station 


Apollo Power Station
 

Discussions on the establishment of Cahora Bassa hydro-electric power station on the Zambezi River, in Mozambique, started in 1965. Dr Straszacker handled the negotiations, that started in 1968, between the South African and Portuguese governments. It was intended to supply electrical power along a 1 400 km route to South Africa. Apollo substation, established by ESCOM, received the first power transmitted from Cahora Bassa in May 1975. The civil war in Mozambique caused an interruption of electrical power supply from this source.


 

 Cahora Bassa
 

A national power network was established in the 1960s. This network was destined to link the Transvaal power stations with the Cape Province undertaking. The lack of coal made it cheaper to transport electricity to the Cape Province via power lines from the north. The announcement of the Orange River Project, which would provide a power source halfway, made this 400 kV link viable. The transmission line to Beaufort West was completed in 1969. Power then flowed from Eastern Transvaal into the Western Cape distribution system.

 
 The logo that was introduced in 1962

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