JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's state-owned power utility Eskom wants to greatly expand its grid beyond its borders, bringing energy security to fast emerging southern Africa by building lines and plants and tapping the region's vast green energy sources.
But first, it must take care of problems at home that include building new power stations for Africa's largest economy and reducing its carbon footprint by ending an almost exclusive reliance on coal, its CEO Brian Dames said on Friday.
Together with the region's other utilities Eskom hopes to prioritize five projects, both in transmission and generation.
"Once you have five power projects and you have the transmissions networks to move the power around, you would create quite a robust energy system," Dames said, although how Eskom would participate - either through equity or otherwise - has yet to be determined.
A dam on the Inga river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which could dwarf China's Three Gorges dam - the world's largest - and possibly another one on the Zambezi river flowing through Zambia and Mozambique, could be options, he said.
South Africa is abundant in coal reserves, now supplying some 85 percent of its power, but lacks sufficient wind, gas and hydro to provide alternatives on a large enough scale.
Dames said a more integrated regional power network would also help reduce the utility's carbon footprint, which amounts to 225 million tonnes of CO2 spewed out each year.
Eskom's heavy reliance on dirty coal-fired plants has made it a target of environmental groups ahead of South Africa hosting global climate talks starting next week in Durban.
But within 30 years, Eskom plans to cut that dependence on coal in its energy mix to below 50 percent, Dames said.
Eskom is building a wind farm and a concentrated solar power pilot plant - each to supply some 100 MW at first - yet neither are seen as a short-term viable alternative to its mega coal-fired plants that generate about 40 times more power.
Eskom operates Africa's sole nuclear power plant and the government says it would like to add 9,600 MW from nuclear by 2030, even as other countries turn away from that technology given risks exposed during the Fukushima crisis in Japan.
"If we want to make sure that we have a response to climate change, we do need baseload capacity, that means capacity available throughout the day," Dames said in defense of nuclear.
The utility has vowed to reduce from 2025 its absolute carbon emissions but has to balance that with the need to supply fast-rising demand, expected to more than double over the next 20 years from around 40,000 MW consumed now.
Electricity supply in South Africa, which suffered a major power crisis in early 2008, is expected to remain tight for at least the next seven years, until Eskom rolls out the two high-tech and more efficient, coal-fired plants under construction.
Eskom plans to install small photovoltaic solar plants at each of the old stations to produce power for internal use and is designing a pilot plant to test a technology to turn deep coal deposits into gas and then feed the gas into a turbine.
Dames said sourcing funds to invest in renewable plants would not be a problem given appetite from organizations such as the World Bank and the Clean Technology Fund.
"Going forward I think we will be able to attract more funding for our renewable expansion," he said.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; editing by James Jukwey