Combustion and other problems stall refurbishment at Morupule A

20 Aug 2018

A project that has defied a series of ever-changing completion dates announced by a president, two ministers and the Botswana Power Corporation remains stubbornly so.

While the latest electricity abstracts from Statistics Botswana reveal that Morupule A Power Station was able to generate only 1.4 percent of electricity generated domestically during the first quarter of this year, there is a lot more that the abstracts don’t reveal.

“Although experiencing operational challenges during the first quarter of 2018, Morupule B Power Station accounted for 98.1 percent of electricity generated locally, followed by Morupule A at 1.4 percent and Matshelagabedi Emergency Power Plant at 0.5 percent,” read the abstracts, adding that the physical volume of generated electricity during the first quarter of 2018 shows a decrease of 9.4 percent (70 497 MWH) compared to the generation of 752 877 MWH during the fourth quarter of 2017.

Statistics Botswana largely attributes the decreases to “operational challenges at the Morupule B Power Station” but there is a bigger cause – Morupule A. The latter was taken out of service in 2012 but three years later, BPC decided to refurbish it in order to mitigate the power crisis occasioned by the continual dysfunction of the Morupule B Power Station next door. At that time, at least according to the 2015/2016 edition of the Rand Merchant Bank’s “Where to Invest in Africa” report, electricity outages in Botswana averaged 10.3 hours a month. After this decision was taken, BPC’s Chief Executive Officer, Jacob Raleru, wrote to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources, Kgomotso Abi, stating that “it should be feasible to secure the envisaged 90 MW generation capacity from three units by the fourth quarter of 2016 and a further 30 MW (making a total of 120 MW) by the fourth quarter of 2017.” Both men no longer hold those positions.

Morupule A was, for the second time this year, quietly shut down last month after a high-pressure tube rupture that reversed months of delicate engineering work by a South Korean company called Doosan Heavy Industries Construction. BPC’s spokesperson, Dineo Seleke confirms that work at the power station has indeed been suspended twice.

“To date, the re-commissioning programme has been suspended twice,” says Seleke, using more technically precise to describe the work that is being done at the power station. “Firstly, in January 2018, the re-commissioning programme was suspended to remedy combustion-related challenges and turbine defects. Secondly, in May 2018, the re-commissioning was again suspended for remediation of historic operational defects which were found in areas or systems not anticipated by the contractor in the refurbishment scope of work.”

Additional information that Sunday Standard was favoured with via a good source is that the combustion problems were a direct result of Doosan using oil - which is very expensive - to fire what is essentially a coal-fired power station. Apparently, oil doesn’t optimize functions of a coal-fired power station. The other technical glitch is said to have been caused by an overheating superheater which Doosan used despite having been advised otherwise. Upon the station’s first commissioning in 1989, the source says, the superheater parts called “bundles” were removed because they couldn’t control temperatures. While it was made aware of this when it started the refurbishment, Doosan is said to have ordered and installed the same bundles that were problematic the first time around. The South Korean company is also being blamed for the second shutdown because it was reportedly told to inspect the tubes from the get-go.

“Actually, the scope of work says so,” a source says.

The latter also reveals that the tube rupture was so severe that if anyone had been nearby, they would certainly have been killed. A similar incident occurred in June 2016 when a prohibitively expensive 40-kilovolt-amps transformer burnt to ashes.

While the power station was not fired for the whole of July, Seleke says that “works on the final remedial actions is nearing completion and re-commissioning has started with all units expected to be handed over by the end of September 2018 as it has been the target initially.” However, the latter assertion conflicts with public statements made by former president Ian Khama, two former energy ministers (Kitso Mokaila and Sadique Kebonang) and Raleru. “End of September” as the projected handover date marks the fourth time such date has shifted: first it was July 2017 which deadline Doosan couldn’t meet and asked for a five-month extension, the company failed to meet that deadline and set a June 2018 deadline which Khama announced in his last state-of-the-nation address. While Seleke asserts the end of September deadline with confidence, a source own estimate is that “the project will probably take between six and 12 months to complete unless Doosan hands over the station without completing the work.”

In March this year, Kebonang told parliament that once fully operational, Morupule A would be able to meet 22 percent of the current national demand. The reality though is that even the 1.4 percent it reportedly contributed during the first quarter of this year is in dispute. A ministry source questions Statistics Botswana’s figures because the refurbishing never reached a point that would allow the power station to go into commercial production. Before a power station can start such production, its units have to be commissioned first but from what Sunday Standard learns, none was ever commissioned. Conversely, Seleke’s explanation is that the configuration of the plant is such that once construction, cold commissioning and hot commissioning are completed, each unit is synchronised to the grid while on load tests.

“Specifically, optimisation and capability tests on various plant equipment are being conducted. Once a unit is synchronised to the power grid, it produces power from there onward. However, the power that is produced during optimisation is not on commercial basis but it has commercial impact for BPC in that it reduces power imports. This is the reason Statistics Botswana reported the 1.4 percent that was produced,” she says.

There is also the question of cost. The Ministry source says that the aforesaid setback will definitely drive up the total cost of refurbishment. Says the source: “Any project that is behind schedule – including those that are not experiencing technical problems of any kind – will never be on budget. The delay in handing over Morupule A, which has already experienced a series of technical problems, necessarily means that it has gone over budget.”

However, what Seleke maintains that no additional funds are being spent towards the delays or remedial works and that “so far the total projected cost of the project has also not been reached.”