HomeEnergy MineralsNew coal sources demand infrastructure changes

New coal sources demand infrastructure changes

Within the next decade, South Africa will have to take major strides in developing rail networks to serve new coal mining areas, especially in the Waterberg region of Limpopo province, if it wants to retain its market for coal exports.

“In some 20 years’ time, the existing coal fired power stations will be approaching the end of their planned lives, and the coal resources allocated for these will be close to being depleted. Plans need to be made and implemented so they can be supplied cost-effectively from elsewhere or replacement stations constructed,” according to Andy Birtles, partner and principal mining engineer in the coal services section of SRK Consulting.

“Indeed, it is becoming generally accepted that output from the Mpumalanga coalfields is likely to decline from about the year 2020, a mere ten years away,” Birtles says.

“If the life of existing power stations is to be extended by another 10 or 20 years, then this might outstrip the minelife of the collieries that supply the coal. This may require a modified rail network in those areas. There needs to be a lot of careful thought given to how we plan a rail supply network that will keep the cost of coal as low as possible.”


Coal mining operations in close
proximity to a power station.

Transnet is trying to expand its efficiencies and service to the industry, to better align its rail capacity with the capacities of the ports though which the country’s export coal must pass. Richards Bay’s current port capacity of 91 million tonnes a year, for instance, substantially outstrips the current rail capacity of some 60 million tonnes a year. It cites locomotive failures, crew scheduling and cable theft among the challenges it is dealing with.

“With regard to coal transport, rail will retain its importance into the future, but the capacity of the currently used lines will be limited without significant capital expenditure,” Birtles says. “The changes will be mainly improvements such as rolling stock, signalling, passing points and efficiencies.”

Solving the rail infrastructure demands will also need more co-operation between stakeholders, says Steve Owen, principal mechanical engineer at SRK. Investments in new rail capacity are likely to require a meeting of minds between mining ventures and Transnet, where some concrete commitments can be drawn up and signed off.

“Investors wanting new or expanded operations to service new power stations or export markets will have to commit to definite volumes, allowing Transnet to justify the capital expenditure to extend rail links between new coalfields, power producers and ports,” Owen says. “The mining industry can learn from the way infrastructural challenges have been dealt with by the water industry, where planning and implementing improvements comes from a local forum of stakeholders.”

There is also a need to progress the SA Coal Roadmap for planning SA’s energy future, Birtles says. “This requires national and provincial government, industry players, and the customers. One of the problems is that there is insufficient sharing of information, but there is potential for progress.


Typical coal loading siding
in Mpumalanga.

“One of the issues is that there has been a steady drop in the quality of the coal that we export, and once it reaches a certain level, below about five thousand kilocalories per kilogram, it may become a strategic mineral, which we need for our own electricity production. The Roadmap needs to address this sort of crucial future issue. We also need to progress our thinking as a southern African region, not just as South Africa.”

He points to the substantial coal reserves of Botswana and Mozambique as examples of how regional resources need to be considered in planning the future of coal and energy infrastructure. “While it is not clear what quality will be delivered by the Botswana coalfield, it is likely that an export route across the Kalahari to the west coast of the continent will be required.”

Similarly, the Moatize-Tete coal basin in Mozambique is going to become a prominent source of export coal and requires both port and rail infrastructure to realise its potential. And, as Zimbabwe looks to stabilise its economic prospects, it will be relying, among other things, on coking coal exports from Hwange.

Back in South Africa, the Waterberg coalfield is seen to be the next important target for miners and energy producers. Transnet has completed its demand study and is completing its identification of rail options and capacity assessments. It is understood that it is also costing new infrastructure to bring the Waterberg coal to power stations and ports.

The South African road network is generally accepted as being to a world class standard. Indeed, visitors drawn to the recent soccer world cup in South Africa have been impressed with the state of the South African infrastructure in general, although the large amounts of coal being moved by road in the Witbank region have caused immense damage to the provincial roads. Transporting more coal by rail will undoubtedly reduce the damage to these roads, and subsequently reduce the potential for the number of accidents occurring on these roads.


Richards Bay’s current port capacity
is 91million tonnes a year.

While coal undoubtedly remains South Africa’s foundation fuel for energy production, there are other options for smaller, renewable power producers operating in a publicprivate partnership, Birtles says. These will play a role in exploiting renewable energy resources like solar and wind, although the impact on the market will be limited.

“Also, government efforts to extend nuclear-powered electricity production at this stage are not aimed at meeting the bulk electricity supply that the country needs,” he says. “And with the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there is likely to be a moratorium on deep-sea oil exploration in a number of areas of the globe, shifting the focus back to coal as a primary source of energy.”

As mentioned, water authorities in South Africa appear to lead the way in facilitating a co-operative approach to infrastructure planning. “A local task team in the Witbank area, for example, included the main users, municipalities and the Department of Water Affairs, among others,” Owen says. This approach is taken to deal with water issues and to create plans to ensure water access and water quality within a particular area.

Given the growing pressure on the country’s water resources, the new power stations, with dry cooling systems will assist in conserving this vital asset.

“There is even the option of looking at dry coal-washing,” Birtles says, “but of course this currently comes at a cost somewhat higher than conventional washing methods, which demand water.”