By Antonio Ruffini

15 May 2012 – Eskom dominates the domestic steam coal market in South Africa, accounting for about 116 million tonnes of the market’s 177 million tonne total. Even though the utility aspires to reduce its dependence on coal fired technology from 90% to about 65%, it will remain the country’s largest buyer of domestic coal for a long time to come.

Kiren Maharaj, Eskom’s divisional executive for primary energy, said at CoalTrans Southern Africa held in Johannesburg last week that even when coal mix is only 65%, it will still account for 30,000 MW of power. “Initially Eskom used the mine mouth model of supplying power stations but, over time as resource challenges emerged, we could not get all our coal supply across using conveyors.” Increasingly this has been transported by road and Eskom is trying to reverse this trend.

“While conveyor carried coal is the ideal it will not be possible for these supplies and the next best option is rail, which is cheaper and eliminates other negative effects in terms of road safety hazards and wear and tear on the roads. Road transport won’t be sustainable,” Maharaj says. Eskom has been moving some 30 million or so tonnes of coal a year to its power stations by road and in 2008 it translated to 5,100 truckloads a day, and the distance covered was equivalent to driving around the world 15 times daily. Diesel consumption of the trucks carrying this coal amounted to 2% of the country’s total diesel usage.

The R9.79 billion investment by Eskom in rail infrastructure will result in 140 km of new rail in Mpumalanga and a reliable rail haulage capacity of 32 million tonnes by 2018, up from 8.8 million tonnes today, which will remove 2,500 daily road truck trips for coal delivery. In addition to the Mpumalanga road to rail initiative Eskom is also looking at the plans to provide 600 km of extra rail from Waterberg from which the utility is looking to secure some of the two billion tonnes of unsecured coal supply it will have to source for its fleet from 2020 onwards.

Plans that have already been realised saw 1.3 million tonnes of coal delivered for Camden power station using a containerised rail solution in 2011 and this is expected to increase to two million tonnes this year. A containerised solution for Tutuka power station is being constructed and expected to be delivering the first deliveries in July 2012. This has seen some of the Tutuka Standerton track reinstated.

As part of Eskom’s future greening plans, biomass for co-firing and the use of limestone for flu gas desulphurisation will need to be transported, and these could have to be transported by road until a rail ready solution was in place.