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Emissions blow out of large coal power plant stack Mark Wilson, Getty Images

At Last, South Africa Opens New Power Plant

After years of delays, the first unit of a new coal plant north of Johannesburg is churning out electricity, though it won’t reach full power until 2019, seven years later than planned.

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa president Jacob Zuma inaugurated the first unit of a new coal-fired power plant on Sunday, hailing it as a step away from the country’s energy woes.

The Medupi power station, situated north of Johannesburg, is to produce 4,800 megawatts of electricity by 2019, when it is expected to be operating at full capacity.

South Africa has suffered through rolling blackouts, known as load shedding, as the state-owned utility Eskom has sought to ease pressure on its stable of aging and poorly-maintained power stations. Eskom, weakened by years of underinvestment, generates more than 95% of South Africa’s electricity.

South Africa’s last new gas-fired power plant opened in 2013, while a new coal-burning plant has not come online since 1996.

“Today we open an important and exciting chapter in our country’s energy history,” Zuma said. “Shortage of energy is a serious impediment to economic growth.”

Construction on Medupi started in 2007 and was supposed to be complete in 2012. Delays have meant that the plant, which South African authorities call the country’s largest coal-fired station, will be fully operational some seven years late. 

The new plant’s first unit began operating in March and its 749 megawatts of electricity should help ease the stress on the country’s troubled electrical grid. Another coal-fired plant is under construction in Kusile, east of Johannesburg. It’s expected to pump out a flow of electricity similar to Medupi, but that project has also been hampered by major delays. 

“It’s too premature to say that it’s the end of load shedding with this inauguration,” energy specialist Chris Yelland told AFP. ”On Monday, a unit of the Koeberg power plant will be shut down for maintenance for three months.” 

South Africa’s ongoing electricity woes have undermined economic growth, especially disrupting the manufacturing and mining sectors.

In May, Statistics South Africa fingered the rolling power cuts for slowing the country’s growth to a disappointing 1.3% in the first months of 2015. The country’s annual production is about 40,000 megawatts.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015

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