Black woman on fire: Nthabiseng Kubheka working to give power millions while clearing the air

Black woman on fire: Nthabiseng Kubheka working to give power millions while clearing the air

- An innovative and imaginative woman is overseeing the construction of a critical piece of a brand new power plant to provide electricity to 3-million South Africans

- Although the plant will be coal fired, Nthabiseng Kubheka’s project is a desulphurisation plant which will reduce emissions dramatically

- Coal still accounts for 77 percent of all the energy produced in South Africa

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While South Africa is best known for its climate, history, and stunning natural beauty, it is less well known for the innovations in reduced emissions coal-fired power plants that are leading the way in improving access to essential power many people previously without electricity. has learned of one woman who is breaking the glass ceiling, pushing ahead of all that might otherwise prevent a woman of colour from forging ahead in the male dominated world of technology and industry

Nthabiseng Kubheka runs the construction of a critical piece of the Kusile Power Station, a high-efficiency, reduced-emissions coal-fired power plant that will provide electricity to 3-million South African homes when it is up and running.

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Though a coal-fired plant may seem like an anachronism at a time when the world is focused on renewables, in South Africa, coal still accounts for 77% of energy and like many other places in the world, will rely on coal-fired plants for much of its electricity for decades to come

Of South Africa’s 16 coal-fired plants, 12 are in the Mpumalanga province which has abundant coal reserves. So the key to the future of coal-fired power plants lies in making these plants as clean as possible.

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Kubheka has an essential role as the project director leading the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) of Kusile’s unique desulphurisation plant — the first of its kind in Africa and the star of the project — and to make sure all processes perform as planned.

The process, known as the Wet Flue Gas Desulphurisation sends flue gas through scrubbers, which transform sulfur dioxide from a harmful gas into a synthetic form of the mineral gypsum. This is done by spraying limestone slurry into the flue gas, after which mist eliminators remove the moisture from the treated flue gas before releasing it into the environment as water vapour. The leftover gypsum can be recycled and moved to a landfill or sold. The plant uses a fraction of the water used by many other plants, thanks to the use of air-cooled condensers instead of a wet-cooled power plant.

Kubheka who started her career 20 years ago as a chemist analysing raw materials for industrial companies moved into quality control when she was pregnant with her son 18 years ago. “Because my job involved toxins, I was moved from the lab into quality control when I was expecting,” she said adding that he move was a blessing. “Once I left, I didn’t want to go back.”

Kubheka says the majority of her colleagues on the projects she has been involved in have been older than her and male. “But what I appreciated most was that they all gave me a chance to prove myself and as soon as they realised I was good at my job, they gave me the respect I deserved,” she says. “Now I know I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself.”

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