Interview: Doing business in South Africa’s power sector

Bilfinger Berger Power Holdings (BBPH), the South African subsidiary of Germany’s Bilfinger Berger, deals with the maintenance, modernisation and conversion of South African power stations with a focus on hard-coal-fired plants. BBPH operates through the Steinmüller brand in South Africa. Nermin Musovic spoke to BBPH CEO, Salvador von Neuberg, about doing business in South Africa’s power sector.

Salvador von Neuberg

Salvador von Neuberg

Please share your thoughts about South Africa’s power industry?

We see South Africa‘s power sector as a growth area. For us the question is whether the additional stations will be coal-fired, nuclear, wind or solar. It will probably be a combination of everything. The fact is that South Africa needs additional power. So we believe South Africa has potential for growth in the power industry and we are quite happy to invest further.

How developed is South Africa’s power industry in general?

Well the main power industry in South Africa is based on coal. Coal here is pretty cheap, so we use local resources, although the environmental requirements in the future may lead to a change in philosophy.

South Africa has modern power stations based on modern concepts. In general we have larger stations than those in Europe. We have what we call six-packs, these are stations of between 600 and 750 megawatts (MW) per boiler. We have 6 x 600 MWs or 6 x 750 MWs, these are gigantic power stations. We don’t find these concepts outside South Africa. These stations are built with a combination of African and European expertise and are technically on the upper level. So, it is not a sort of dumping place for old technology. We apply modern technology.

Is access to skilled labour a challenge?

There is a challenge with skilled labour in most of the technical fields, like welders, supervisors, other artisans and engineers. For example, we presently [employ] welders from Pakistan and India to assist us [during] our peak demand periods. We also have engineers and supervisors from Europe to help us train South Africans, and once that has been achieved, they will return home. That is one of the advantages that we have at Steinmüller – the parent company is involved in similar activities in international markets and we can draw on those expertise.

In addition, we have a training academy, through which we train about 140 artisans annually. This helps us as a company, but it also assists with growing the skills pool in the industry.

Which areas of the power sector have potential for further growth?

Potential is mainly in the environmental areas, for example, in cleaning processes that make power stations more environmentally friendly. We are also looking at renewable energy. There will be some wind and solar plants and we want to be part of it, but more from the construction and maintenance side.

What is your message to power companies looking to invest in the South African market?

I think there is potential for growth. We of course don’t want to invite competitors, but we believe South Africa is politically stable and provides growth for new companies.