Environmental Services

Generating ecological gains from hydro-electric power

Generating ecological gains from hydro-electric power

NCC has worked with Eskom to mitigate the environmental impacts of the Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme on a sensitive wetland site in the Little Drakensberg/Escarpment, including creating and managing a new conservation area.

South Africa’s energy demand is growing at rates of around 5% a year, placing enormous pressure on Eskom not only to create new generating capacity, but also to manage existing capacity more efficiently.

One way to do this is through pumped storage schemes:

Water is pumped to a high-level reservoir during times of low demand, then released during the day to drive hydro-electric turbines to supplement peak demand. Very few locations are suitable for pumped storage schemes.

The requirements are: 

  • Two appropriate reservoirs which are far apart in height but not in distance.
  • Adequate water supplies and suitable geology for holding water and building tunnels.

Ingula, the first such scheme to be built in South Africa for three decades after the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme, straddles the Vaal/Tugela watershed on the border of KwaZulu Natal and the Free State, near the towns of Harrismith and Ladysmith.

The site of the upper Bedform Dam at Ingula in particular is both ecologically important and very sensitive. The site is categorised as Wet Cold Highveld Grassland and is home to a large wetland complex that is both hydrologically and ecologically valuable – although much of the site was historically mismanaged and its condition far from pristine.

In response to concerns about the project’s impact, Eskom agreed to buy an additional 8,000ha of nearby land to be rehabilitated and preserved as a conservation area. NGOs including Birdlife South Africa and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust are working in partnership with Eskom to achieve this goal; there is also an Ingula Advisory Committee: Conservation that monitors daily activity.

NCC's Role in the Ingula Project

Eskom began work at Ingula in 2005, and NCC was formally appointed in 2008 to bolster the complex job of environmental management on site. Our team has a constant presence on site, monitoring and reporting on environmental compliance and acting as liaison between Eskom, government departments and other interested parties.

While Eskom’s senior executive team has been solidly behind the environmental aspect of the project from the start, it was (as always) a more challenging task to sell the value of environmental compliance to the engineering team. Eskom and NCC built a strong on-site team, created an organogram that showed clearly where environmental compliance fit in with the rest of the project, and secured management buy-in for this role. This was a major step up from the previous situation, in which a single individual was appointed to manage the entire compliance function – but the role was largely misunderstood.

NCC has been able to help the project planners understand the repercussions of different design choices – the location of roads, for example – and thus to make decisions that ultimately lower the cost of the project, increase its long-term viability, and benefit the environment.

Conservation Rehabilitation

The conservation area is currently being rehabilitated after over a century of entrenched farming and burning practices that had left it badly degraded. In the long term Eskom will seek Ramsar protection status for the entire wetland, and with the support of the surrounding communities the conservation area may grow as big as 65,000ha.

Ingula is becoming an iconic example of what can be achieved when major industrial projects are planned and implemented with a clear intention to minimise and offset environmental impacts. The conservation area is a real improvement over what existed before, and would not be possible without the accompanying development. On the other hand, the development can only succeed in the long term if the natural resources on which it relies are well managed. Thanks to bold leadership by the client and consistent implementation during the day-to-day work of construction, this is one project that will benefit all parties.

Additional links

ngula pump storage scheme overview

Ingula pump storage scheme environmental impact & assessment

The Ingula legacy
SSI wins prestigious engineering award