Kusile and Medupi, Conceived in Resource-Rich 20th Century, Struggle in Water-Scarce 21st

The 4,800-megawatt Kusile power station under construction in South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 4,800-megawatt Kusile power station under construction in South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMALAHLENI, South Africa – Not far from Johannesburg, set amid the corn and sunflower fields of the Highveld in Mpumalanga province, stand two unusually thick and tall candy-striped smokestacks, dozens of stout concrete support columns, and the tangled steel superstructure of the unfinished 4,800-megawatt Kusile coal-fired power station.

About 370 kilometers (230 miles) northwest, spread across a stretch of dry scrubland in Limpopo province, is the construction site for Kusile’s unfinished twin, the 4,800-megawatt Medupi power station.

More than a decade ago, at the turn of the 21st century, South Africa conceived the idea of building Kusile and Medupi, two of the four largest coal plants in the world. The proposal gained significant public prominence around the century’s end when South Africa’s bid to develop its own nuclear reactor design, and build several plants, was rejected by the global finance community.

Medupi and Kusile, designed with advanced water conservation cooling and pollution control systems, and due to be completed by 2014 and 2015, respectively, at a cost of $US 6 billion each, were greeted as both momentous and logical. For over a century South Africa’s economy fueled itself with the nation’s ample coal reserves, which today generate 90 percent of the nation’s electricity and 35 percent of its liquid fuel, employ tens of thousands of workers, and consume two percent of the water.

A tangle of steel and concrete describes the construction site of the Kusile power station in South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider
A tangle of steel and concrete describes the construction site of the Kusile power station in South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

Kusile and Medupi were promoted by South Africa’s elected leaders as signature statements of the new era of liberty, the freedom to think big, and the determination to power a modern economy of opportunity that would serve all of the people. That sense of optimism and zeal was reflected in Kusile’s Zulu name, which means “new dawn.”

Over the last several years, dawn has evolved into a gathering storm. Long construction delays and escalating costs, engineering challenges, and the intensifying risk of scarce water have pushed Kusile and its sister plant into the eye of a typhoon of economic, ecological, and social disturbances engulfing South Africa. In so many ways, the troubled development of Kusile and Medupi, and the tumult enveloping South Africa’s deteriorating financial and social condition, are not just mirror images of each other.

The two plants, projected to be almost a decade late in completion and $US 20 billion or more over budget, are among the principal causes. The trouble is not simply a matter of managerial missteps. The vortex of disruption that envelops Medupi and Kusile reflects the clash between the economic and ecological operating systems of two centuries. Kusile and Medupi arguably represent the most prominent global examples of big projects that do not fit their time.

Conceived in the resource-rich, more ecologically stable, and capital-abundant turn of the century, the two plants were viewed as reasoned answers to South Africa’s growing demand for electricity, and as evidence of a new government’s capacity to execute complex industrial projects. South Africa sees its global reputation as tied to completing the two plants.

“They must finish and they will finish,” said Jacob Misimango, a 54-year-old business executive in Emalahleni who is seeking permits to start an open cast coal mine outside the city, in part to supply fuel for Kusile. “These projects have drawn the world’s attention. They have to finish. Why?

“Number one. There is a shortage of electricity. The only solution is these stations. We have coal to fuel them.

“Two. It’s important for our government to prove we can do this thing. Our national pride is at stake. Not being able to finish is demoralizing. We must prove we can finish.

“Three. There is a lot of interest on loans that we have to pay back. We need to finish to pay back those loans.”

Coal fuels 90 percent of South Africa's electricity from 17 big coal-fired power stations. Photo/Keith Schneider
Coal fuels 90 percent of South Africa’s electricity from 17 big coal-fired power stations. Photo/Keith Schneider

Big Ideas Encounter Tumult
But well over a decade after they were initially proposed, both plants, and their builder, are crashing into the project-debilitating limits of the resource-scarce, ecologically unstable, and nervous financial markets of the advancing 21st century. Said another way, the narrative of economic progress, expressed by gargantuan industrial projects and centralized management practices, is breaking apart under intense ecological pressure.

Taking its place are two new stories. The first documents the advent of new energy generating technologies – solar, wind, and small hydropower plants – that are less expensive, consume smaller amounts of critical resources, especially water, and take a year or two instead of a decade to build. From 2010 to 2015, South Africa brought 1,900 megawatts of renewable energy online – most of it wind and solar generated – at an average cost of around $US 1.5 million per megawatt.

Wind and solar generating stations, according to the South Africa Department of Energy, now add roughly 1,000 megawatts of new generating capacity annually to the national grid, take up less space and cause much less damage to the land than coal mines, and use scant amounts of water. The new plants also take 15 months to two years to complete, says a Department of Energy report made public late last year, and produce power at about half the current estimate of the cost of electricity that will be generated by Medupi and Kusile.

The second and more disturbing story describes the pernicious stubbornness of global financiers and industrial developers who persist in building immense energy and mining projects that cause severe environmental dissolution and financial distress. Building mega energy projects, never easy, is more difficult now in South Africa and around the world because evidence of permanent harm to the environment and communities also is activating a swarm of civic rebellions to halt construction.

“Medupi and Kusile are examples of large-scale mega infrastructure projects that countries see as the basis of a development model that started after World War II,” said Janet Redman, director of the Climate Program at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and an authority on World Bank loan programs. “Projects this large are seen as transformational. They cost a lot. They employ a lot of people. Their effects are meant to be big. But it’s a model that doesn’t make much sense now. “Large projects, like Medupi and Kusile, are so vulnerable to delay, to land disputes, to disputes over water supply, to changes in markets, and to big cost overruns. Yet big institutions continue to support them.”

— Keith Schneider

Read the full report at Circle of Blue here.

See all of the reports from South Africa at the Choke Point: South Africa page at Circle of Blue.

Challenged By Drought, Fire, Earthquake, and Flood, California Departs On New Path

The depleted condition of Lake Oroville is an apt example of California's challenge in the 21st century. The state is drying. The lake in northern California is 42 percent of capacity and receding  daily. Photo/ Keith Schneider
The depleted condition of Lake Oroville is an apt example of California’s challenge in the 21st century. The state is drying. The lake in northern California is 42 percent of capacity and receding daily. Photo/ Keith Schneider

OROVILLE, CA — Until visitors peer over the crest of 770-foot Oroville Dam, which stores the cold Sierra waters of the Feather River and is the tallest dam in the United States, it’s hard to tell a drought grips Butte County, or any of the other neighboring Central Valley counties in this part of northern California.

The dirt-lined transport canals are filled to the top with water that slakes the thirst of thousands of hectares of rice, sunflowers, peaches, corn, soybeans, and all manner of California’s agricultural cornucopia. Unlike the southern reaches of the Central Valley, there’s no sign of the empty spaces of brown dirt where tomato fields lie fallow, or laser-leveled orchards under moisture duress that have been ripped out.

Quite the contrary. The region’s bullet-straight two lane highways pass by new orchards under cultivation, the roots of each infant tree politely dressed in swirls of drip irrigation line, and saluted by the short red plastic stake of a single spray irrigator. More surprising are the throngs of sunburned bathers and jet ski operators enjoying the deep cooling depths of two blue and bountiful manmade lakes that flank Highway 162. The highway is the primary route to enter this city of 16,000 residents, and to climb the Sierra foothills to reach the dam and its visitors center.

The sight from the trail across the dam’s spillway describes a much different story. The Lake Oroville reservoir, California’s second largest, is 42 percent of capacity, according to the state Department of Water Resources. It looks it. Two million of its 3.5 million acre-feet of water are gone. A bathtub ring of rock and soil, 200 feet wide, circles the lake like a light brown rebuke to the will of its essential purpose.

A Drain on Storage
Week by week the ring grows a little wider as the reservoir drains to irrigate fields and supply thirsty towns across the state that receive Lake Oroville’s liquid offering. The steadily receding water level is intently followed along the Sierra front like the won-loss record of high school football teams. “What’s happening is kind of out of our hands,” said Karen Wilson, a mother of two young children, who works part-time at an Oroville convenience store. “We do what we can. Don’t wash the car. Short showers. Live with brown grass. Dishwater on the gardens. You kind of hope the people in charge of the big stuff know what they’re doing.”

Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of peril aggravated by a fast-rising population, a consensus emerged a long time ago that to live and thrive here comes with a public responsibility to match supplies of energy, water, food, transportation, and housing with demand. Photo/Keith Schneider
Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of peril aggravated by a fast-rising population, a consensus emerged a long time ago that to live and thrive here comes with a public responsibility to match supplies of energy, water, food, transportation, and housing with demand. Photo/Keith Schneider

In much of the skeptical, government-suspicious United States that’s an odd appeal — looking to the authorities for guidance. In its matter of fact way, though, Wilson expresses the conviction held by most Californians that the authorities are actually capable of responding well to urgent conditions.
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U.S. Ports Modernize While Water Supply and Quality Deteriorate

Georgia's Garden City Terminal near Savannah is the nation's fourth largest container port. Georgia and the federal government spent $758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the port. Photo/Keith Schneider
Georgia’s Garden City Terminal near Savannah is the nation’s fourth largest container port. Georgia and the federal government spent $758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the port. Photo/Keith Schneider

SAVANNAH, Ga. — There’s not much about water infrastructure that gets America’s lawmakers excited these days unless it’s a big coastal port.

The New York/New Jersey port, with a big assist from the federal government, is spending $1.3 billion to lift the 84-year-old Bayonne Bridge high enough to allow a new generation of super-sized cargo vessels to pass underneath. Charleston, S.C., with state and federal support, is spending $2 billion to deepen the harbor and expand port facilities. Miami has a project of comparable size to do the same thing.

Here in Savannah, where ocean-going ships have arrived and departed since the city was founded in 1733, Georgia and its Congressional delegation collaborated to direct $758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the nation’s fourth largest container port. Over the next decade, say port executives, an additional $1.4 billion is in the port’s capital budget, including $706 million to deepen the harbor and the Savannah River.

In all, spending on capital improvements to U.S. ports has averaged $10 billion annually over the last decade, according to a 2014 study of infrastructure investment by PricewaterhouseCoopers. By 2025, U.S. port capital investments are projected to reach $20 billion annually, the study concludes.

In contrast, U.S. capital investments in water supply and wastewater treatment totaled around $2 billion annually over the last decade. By 2025, investments in water supply and treatment may reach $3 billion annually, says PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Uneven Funding
The mismatch in spending is reflected in two essential metrics that are clearly apparent in Savannah. The Garden City container terminal, with its new electric cranes, redesigned loading deck traffic patterns, and expanded intermodal train facilities, is a showcase marine import and export installation. The decade of investment in equipment and practices by Georgia and the federal government, which came in anticipation of handling more cargo from the expanded Panama Canal, has resulted in hundreds of new jobs at the terminal, and thousands more inside the 45 million square feet of logistics, storage, and distribution centers that surround the port.

In the meantime scant investment in water quality infrastructure has left the Savannah River dirtier than ever. The most recent EPA Toxics Release Inventory, for instance, finds that only two other rivers — the Ohio River and the New River in West Virginia — have more hazardous chemicals being poured into them than the Savannah River.
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Meghalaya Documentary — “Broken Landscape” — Premieres At Big Sky Film Festival

Sean Peoples, a filmmaker with the Wilson Center, arrived today in Missoula, Montana to attend tomorrow’s premiere of “Broken Landscape” at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The 13-minute documentary, which Sean co-produced with Michael Miller, explores the aftermath of the unexpected court-ordered shutdown of one of the word’s most lawless and dangerous coal fields, in Meghalaya, India.

Judges have already recognized “Broken Landscape” as one of the ten best documentaries among the 125 films to be shown during the festival. Meaghan Parker, a writer and editor for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program writes: “Selected from over 1200 entries, “Broken Landscape” will also be one of ten short documentaries eligible for selection as best in show – potentially earning a qualification for Academy Award nomination!”

“Broken Landscape,” nearly a year in the making, is based on the reporting I did last year for Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center, our collaborator on the Global Choke Point project. Starting from the quiet sweep of a canoe paddle stirring the contaminated waters of southeast Meghalaya, “Broken Landscape” takes viewers down a makeshift tree branch ladder into one of the region’s deep rathole box mines, where serious injuries are endemic and miners regularly die of cave-ins and drownings.

In April 2014, the National Green Tribunal ordered the mines shut until safety and environmental practices improved. The court order prompted protests and a huge march that was captured on film by Sean and Michael.

“Broken Landscape” describes the panoply of frustration prompted by feudal mining practices — the distress of local villagers afraid of the water; the work stoppage that leaves desperate immigrant miners jobless and homeless; the loss of income sustained by mine owners; the mix of skepticism and despair expressed by journalists with the Shillong Times who understand the enduring consequences of reckless mine practices to the land and its residents.

I returned to Meghalaya in November to report on the leaky enforcement of the NGT shutdown. I’m preparing a new report for posting later this year. Take a look at this first-rate film.

— Keith Schneider

Sannio Siangshai (r), a reporter for the Shillong Times, who appears in "Broken Landscape," and has closely covered the depradations of Meghalaya's coal sector. Photo/Keith Schneider
Sannio Siangshai (r), a reporter for the Shillong Times, who appears in “Broken Landscape,” and has closely covered the depradations of Meghalaya’s coal sector. Photo/Keith Schneider
The flat ground along the highway is the staging area for unloading coal from mines, and loading coal onto trucks for shipment to Assam and Bangladesh. Photo/Keith Schneider
The flat ground along the highway is the staging area for unloading coal from mines, and loading coal onto trucks for shipment to Assam and Bangladesh. Photo/Keith Schneider
A rathole box mine in Meghalaya, India. Photo/Keith Schneider
A rathole box mine in Meghalaya, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

Algae Blooms, A New Visitor, Ruin Sleeping Bear Dunes Shoreline

Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan's gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider
Algae blooms are marring the shores of Northwest Michigan’s gorgeous national park, seen from Alligator Hill in Leelanau County. Photo/Keith Schneider

EMPIRE, Michigan — It’s winter in Northwest Michigan, the coldest and deepest season of ice and snow in years. It’s possible that the severe winter will produce the conditions necessary to curb the newest noxious and unsightly threat to the region’s waters: the algae blooms overtaking northern Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The blooms not only illustrate the presence of rising levels of nutrients in the water. They also are evidence of the weakening resolve of citizens, their state, and the nation to secure America’s clean fresh water. Write me – keith@circleofblue.org – if you’re interested in organizing to halt this frustrating risk to the national park in our own backyard, and to addressing this insult to our lakes and rivers.

No place in the United States, it seems to me, is a better place to start. In 1970 the United States Congress authorized land purchases to establish Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — 35 miles of towering dunes, broad forests of maple and hemlock, and magnificent shallow blue bays along the northern Lake Michigan shoreline west of Traverse City.

In almost every way conceivable, Sleeping Bear’s founding reflected the best impulses of a nation determined to prove that economic development could coincide with new measures to conserve land, and scrub the air and water clean of multiple pollutants.

The 71,000-acre national park, founded at the very center of the five Great Lakes, met two primary national goals. Sleeping Bear restored the deteriorated bounty of soil, forest, and water that supported, into the early decades of the 20th century, a necklace of tiny maritime communities and several thousand fishing, farm, and forestry jobs.

And second, Sleeping Bear helped to prove that a new and much larger economic sector could be formed from policies that preserved a region’s ecology, limited pollution, and effectively enforced environmental law.

In the course of two generations, the air and water in and outside the park were largely cleared of pollution and improved to near pristine quality. Rivers in and outside the park grew colder and clearer, supporting active salmon and trout fisheries. Forests in and outside the park grew taller, more dense, and more supportive of wildlife, including regular sightings of bobcat, bear, goshawks, and once-endangered bald eagles.
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