Hydropower Should Have a Place in South Africa’s Power Mix

Small hydropower can play a pivotal role in providing energy access to remote areas in Africa.
Published: Mon 03 Aug 2015

Bids for construction of a proposed hydropower station on the Orange River on the farm Riemvasmaak north of the Augrabies Falls are due to be submitted by October this year.lg.php?bannerid=6094&campaignid=4653&zoneid=374&loc=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.tourismupdate.co

HydroSA said if its bid was successful, construction would begin in August 2016 and take 36 months. The hydropower station will extract water 1.5km upstream of the Augrabies Falls, returning the water 7.5km downstream of the Falls. This will generate up to 40MW of electricity. The powerhouse and tailrace would be located on land belonging to the Riemvasmaak Community Trust in the Augrabies Park, and a 2.5m-long weir across the Orange River and 4.6km-long underground culvert would be located on South African National Parks (SANParks) land.

Environmental and tourism concerns

SANParks has expressed its concern over the R1 billion (US$79 million) Augrabies scheme’s effect on tourism caused by the visual impact of the station as well as on visitors’ experience of the 60m falls, the world’s fifth highest.

SANParks has also expressed concerns over the negative environmental effect on the Augrabies Falls, as a ‘sizeable’ portion of the river would be used. “A minimum reserve flow is required to maintain ecosystem integrity, especially as the choice of the availability of electricity to consumers is likely to supersede the volume of water flowing towards the Falls because the provision of electricity will be regarded as a priority,” said Nadia Lemmetuis, Regional Communication Manager for SANParks.

The area through which the canal is planned is a ‘highly protected zone’ and categorised as a special management area. 

This project forms part of South Africa’s plan to build a number of hydroelectric plants along the Orange River. Environmentalists say that the cumulative impact of the projects poses a threat to the Orange River and the 11% of the lower river environment that remains pristine.

Commenting on the potential knock-on effect on ecotourism –particularly rafting operations – in the area, Luise Niemoller Coertzen of Pofadder Tourism said: “Tourism development is the only hope for long-term job creation in our remote areas and will be seriously affected in a negative way.

Responding to concerns, Hydro SA director Niel Theron said that all water used in the Orange Falls project would be returned to the Orange River and that at Augrabies “the amount of water [extracted] is very little in terms of the flow regime”. Theron added that at Augrabies the powerhouse, piping and power lines would be underground and that the structure in the river would be barely visible. He says, “We have put a pause on the process so that we may engage more with the public to ensure that they get the message and understand it, and are then able to comment on an informed basis,” he added.

South Africa’s hydro plans

This project forms part of South Africa’s plan to build a number of hydroelectric plants along the Orange River. Also targeted for hydroelectric schemes are the Orange Falls (also known as the Ritchie Falls) near the towns of Pofadder and Onseepkans, as well as the Neusberg plant near Kakamas, which is already under construction, and the Boegoeberg Dam in Groblershoop.

The planned plants are to be built by private South African company Hydro SA in partnership with state-owned Australian firm Hydro Tasmania.

Orange Falls Hydro Electric Power, Hydro SA’s specially created subsidiary for the Orange Falls project, plans to construct a run-of-river hydropower station with a capacity of 30MW about 11km from Onseepkans. It would use flow-focusing structures and two low weirs to direct water to the hydropower plant, diverting water away from the falls and releasing it in the lower southern channel of the Orange River, 250m downstream.


Potential benefits of hydro

While there are always going to be environmental concerns around the development of hydropower projects, it is also worth listing the benefits which would solve a number of existing socio-economic problems in Riemvasmaak:

Local job creation- Riemvasmaak locals would be supplied with 100-150 jobs per month over a three year period and during operations 10 persons for the 80-year lifespan of the facility.

Community ownership-the firm has arranged for the surrounding communities to take 15% ownership in the project through a community trust funded by the IDC [Industrial Development Corporation].  When the project starts to yield income from the power it generates and sells to state-owned utility, Eskom, the community trust will receive funds.

Rental Income- the hydro facility will lease the land on which the facility will be situated and the community will derive rental income.

Economic Inflows- Renewable companies are mandated to spend a portion of the procurement with local suppliers.

Power trade- Although parts of the Orange Falls project would be built on the South African side of the river, Hydro SA regards this as a Namibian project and hopes to sell power generated to that country’s power utility, Nampower.

Adding water to South Africa’s mix

South Africa has not placed enough emphasis on the potential of hydropower as a solution to the country's electricity shortage. In 2011 Cabinet approved the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which sets out a diversification of sources of fuel by 2030. It also states that the future power mix will derive 6% from pumped storage for peak supply and 12% from base-load imported hydropower.

South Africa only aims to add another 75MW from hydro, when the country has the capacity to add 10 times as much. Hydropower accounts for about 5% of Eskom's theoretical output capacity of 45,000MW, although this varies depending on whether coal stations are offline for maintenance. This percentage could grow if the IPP programme capacity is allowed to develop fully to 75MW.

Closing the power gap with hydro

The whole idea behind South Africa's IRP is to partly replace coal power plants, while government also needs to find an alternative source of energy to achieve its targets in terms of additional power capacity, adding around 40,000MW by 2030, compared to 2010.

Says Melt, "Hydro is a part of the plan, but the additional power generation capacity will mainly come from coal-fired power stations. Hydro can be used for base power generation because it is a steady supply and — because it can be stored and released — can be used for peak power.”

Wim Jonker Klunne, from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, has noted that about 10% of the global hydropower potential is located on the African continent, with the majority of that in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, only 4% to 7% of this potential has been developed.

Small hydropower especially remains undeveloped, and is expected to play a key role in providing energy access to remote areas in Africa either in stand-alone isolated mini grids or as distributed generation in national grids.