In May 2007, when South African utility Eskom broke ground on Medupi, the country’s first new powerplant since the 1980s, in some cases it was business as usual. The generating station would be coal-fired, sited next to the supplying mine and—with a 4,800-MW rated capacity—immense. Medupi, by far the largest powerplant under construction in Africa, will be one of the largest in the world upon completion. It will account for about 11% of South Africa’s electricity generating capacity.

Kusile, another new plant with a commissioning schedule about 18 months behind Medupi’s, has an identical “six-pack configuration,” with six identical 800-MW units configured in tandem. By 2015-16, when both plants are scheduled to be in full operation, they will generate nearly a quarter of the country’s electricity baseload. In addition to the benefits of economies of scale, “We conglomerate powerplants near mines to keep the distance coal is transported to a minimum,” says Roman Crookes, Eskom’s project manager.

In other ways, Medupi is a marked departure from the last plants built during the pre-1994 apartheid era. The owner will use a technology that is new for South Africa and try to balance a 19th century fuel with 21st century environmental concerns. The powerplant’s engineering and construction team is fully integrated, melding international offshore program management and component suppliers with a homegrown work force that must meet Accelerated Growth in South Africa (AGISA) quotas. Similar to U.S. affirmative-action and small-business set-asides but more ambitious, AGISA sets the bar high in five areas: black economic empowerment, assistance for formerly disadvantaged people, women-owned and local businesses, and skills transfer.

Power for the people

Crookes calls it a “salt-and-pepper” approach. “Everyone here is South African—if not an actual South African, then by adoption,” he says. The project is more than a high-profile plum for Japanese boilermaker Hitachi, Swiss generator vendor Alstom, U.S. program manager Parsons Brinckerhoff or South African prime contractor Murray & Roberts. “It’s for the country. It’s for our future,” Crookes says.

Advanced boilers are now a proven, widely available combustion technology. Hitachi Africa Ltd., a unit of Japan’s Hitachi Group, is supplying supercritical boilers at both powerplants. They are designed to operate at more than 1,100° F. “Supercritical boilers operate at higher temperatures and higher pressure, require less water and burn coal more efficiently than conventional boilers,” says Crookes. “We’re very diligent about minimizing our carbon footprint.”

Hitachi’s AGISA goal stipulates that 60% of its $2.6-billion contract must stay in South Africa. Although some of the specialized components are supplied offshore, as much pipefitting and fabrication work as possible are performed in-country at a Hitachi-built plant in Nigel and training centers in Pretoria and Wadeville. The goal, says Crookes, is to develop a talent pool that will serve South Africa and its neighbors long after Medupi is finished in 2015.

The plant, situated in Limpopo Province about 300 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, will be supplied by the nearby Grootegeluk mine. Reserves are ample, with relatively high calorific value, although somewhat high in ash content, Eskom says. Medupi will consume 14.6 million tonnes annually over the next 40 years.

Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and election to the presidency paved the way for South Africa’s resumption of normalized economic and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. It also brought a stronger emphasis on environmental concerns.

A $3.75-billion loan application, approved in April by the World Bank, was criticized strongly both inside and outside...