I AM sure Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba’s heart is in the right place when he calls for small miners to play a part in supplying Eskom with coal, but the Chamber of Mines’ response should be read as very cautionary (Eskom plan must safeguard small mines, says Sibiya, December 11).

The minister’s approach shows yet again that the African National Congress does not understand mining. First, mining is a size-driven thing. Big mines are efficient and cheap — small mines are inefficient and therefore costly.

The coal from small mines is going to cost more and that is going to push up the price of electricity even faster.

Second, supplying an Eskom power station is not only about digging up coal, it is also about getting the coal to the power station efficiently and cheaply.

The big mines on which Eskom has long relied have created the infrastructure that is necessary. Huge conveyor belts crisscross the Highveld.

The small mines do not have access to this infrastructure, so they must use road or rail.

We cannot maintain the roads they use at present — expect further degradation and further cost increases.

Third, there is coal and coal. A question Eskom faces is how to make certain they buy a consistent quality. It is easy with a belt, for fundamental sampling reasons.

But truckloads are something else. A big power station needs a 30-ton truck every minute of every day.

How does Eskom ensure that every load is good stuff, will burn well and won’t damage their boilers?

Only with great difficulty — and that adds further to the expense.

So the chamber’s plea to make the small mines sustainable is really a plea to find some way to lower their costs. Without that, the coal will become more expensive, and so will our power, and that is unsustainable.

Prof Philip Lloyd

Energy Institute, Cape Peninsula University of Technology