Medupi transmission project EIAs progress

10th February 2012 By: Sashnee Moodley - Deputy Editor Polity and Multimedia

Construction on State utility Eskom’s Medupi Transmission Integration project is under way, following the authorisation of four of the seven environmental-impact assessments (EIAs), says engineering and environmental consultancy Fourth Element Consulting director Stuart Dunsmore.

The consulting company, formerly PBA International, has been managing the EIAs for the integration project since 2006. The last environmental-impact report was submitted to the Department of Environmental Affairs in December last year.

Dunsmore expects environmental authorisation for the remaining EIAs to be concluded by the end of March this year.

“Eskom would need to confirm construction timeframes, as these may have shifted in the past six months but we anticipate construction on the first of the 765 kV lines to start in late 2013 or early 2014,” he reveals.

The project will facilitate over 3 000 km of new 400 kV and 765 kV transmission lines and at least three new large substations of more than 100 ha each, which will link Medupi and the Waterberg coalfields to the South African grid. The expansion of four substations is also included in the project scope.

According to Eskom’s 2012 to 2021 Transmission Development Plan, R13-billion is currently allocated for the project and some of the components have been deferred.

A part of the project will see six 765 kV lines being constructed over a distance of 360 km between the Delta substation, near Lephalale, in Limpopo, and the Epsilon substation, near Potchefstroom, in the North West.

Dunsmore says a number of planning issues were raised in the EIAs, which were completed over a period of 30 months, and that the planning of the new infrastructure was complex, as six new power lines were needed to accommodate at least 20 years of potential growth in generation capacity in the Medupi area.

“Queries turned to the manner of most effectively transferring the electricity to the national grid and, after complex analysis of network stability and reliability during the planning phase, Eskom required the lines to be combined in three corridors of two lines each, spreading the environmental impact over a much wider area. The EIA challenged this and pushed for more analysis of environmental risks that may cause failure of more than one line at a time,” he says.

As a result of the EIA’s need for further environmental analysis, together with public pressure to consider other technical solutions, Eskom amended the project proposal to two corridors of three lines each, with one of the lines being high-voltage direct current.

Independent consulting electrical engineer and network planner Mfundi Songo and Fourth Element were the key combination that facilitated the success of the project, says Dunsmore.

Fourth Element environmental director Tsepo Lepono believes that revisiting the Eskom plan should not have been done in the EIA. Instead, the initial planning process should have had environmental input. The EIA process is not designed as a planning tool, he says.

“With a clearly defined and motivated project proposal, including corridor alternatives, such a project should be completed in 18 to 24 months. We are even seeing the same delays affecting smaller, less complex projects. The EIA challenges the routes identified in the planning phase and the process comes to a halt while environmental planning factors are considered. New route alternatives are invariably identified. Planning new power lines needs environmental input,” he states.

Lepono also believes that the public should be considered in the planning phase, as most landowners and communities find out about new lines when the project’s planning is concluded and the EIA process begins. Linear infrastructure projects directly affect third-party property. The later the third parties are involved, the higher the risk of delays.

“In developing countries, there is usually limited spatial planning information that will assist in route planning. In South Africa, this includes the detail contained in the Integrated Development Plans that are still not what they should be. It is critical, therefore, that the initial route planning includes some level of public involvement. This should include local government, the business community, the tourism sector and agricultural representatives,” says Lepono.

He believes that public participation is limited in the planning phases of projects and that this should take place at an earlier stage as it will add considerable value to planning processes and will reduce the risks that are faced in the EIA process.

Dunsmore says the need for improved environmental planning is important and that issues relating to line routing and social impacts are brought about because environmental planning is left until the EIA phase of the project.

He states that the lines will have an impact on the environment and vice versa.

“The latter was particularly important in reviewing the planning for the six new 765 kV lines and resulted in detailed risk studies of bush fires and tornados in the study area. These have not been done before in EIAs for new lines, and the tornado study was a first for the planners, requiring a careful review of their design guidelines.

“Impacts by the lines on the environment are numerous, but, perhaps, the most conten- tious centred on the visual impacts in an environment that is rapidly converting to game hunting and nature tourism. This issue also had particular influence on the review of the planning of the new routes,” says Dunsmore.

Other planning issues included designing a new network owing to the uncertainty of local load-growth centres and the stability and reliability of the network.

“I believe that good environmental planning will relieve a significant degree of pressure and risk currently placed on the EIA process for new lines. However, there still needs to be sufficient time to allow for this to take place. That is why it should be done in parallel with the engineering planning. Reduced timeframes for the EIA process will also benefit landowners, who sometimes have to wait three or more years before environmental authorisation is made, which holds up their own investment initiatives,” notes Dunsmore.