They can be seen in the veld or cities: highly skilled linesmen working from heavy trucks equipped with bucket cranes and robotic arms to construct and maintain South Africa’s electric power grid.When disaster strikes, their job is obviously a lot more complicated than changing a light fitting, for which you switch off the mains. These linesmen keep industry, commerce and households going, being able to replace conductors high above the ground with up to 765 kW of uninterrupted electricity pulsating through the lines on which they are working.
This is highly specialised work that is now being outsourced all over the world by power utilities to power installation companies. In SA too, it is outsourced by the likes of Eskom and Johannesburg City Power to one of South Africa’s leading and largest black-owned power installation companies, the KZN-based Edison Power Group.
Founded by Durban businessman and chairman, Vivian Reddy, Edison Power has mushroomed into a national organisation that specialises in several fields. These include transmission and distribution lines, industrial and commercial electrification, live-line services, construction of substations, electrical reticulation and maintenance, and the manufacture and supply of transformers. It has a staff of more than 2 500 located in major city centres with about 1 000 temporary staff on call.
Part of the group’s success is its strong business links with Indian and American companies specialising in different electrical fields. They include KEC International, of India, which manufactures steel tower structures in India and ships them to South Africa, where they are erected by one of the group’s national subsidiaries – Edison Jehamo Power (EJP).
The group has also built a transformer manufacturing plant in Vereeniging in a joint venture with Emco, another Indian company, to take advantage of the multibillion-rand investments in African power projects.
Reddy expects turnover of R1 billion last year to increase to R5 billion by 2015, helped along via expansion into Africa, which has a R300 billion electrification programme expected to take off over the next ten years.
The group, which recently won an award for the best electrical company in South Africa, has an impressive track record. Some of the multimillion-rand projects in which the group has been involved, include FIFA World Cup projects such as a R500 million electrical cabling contract for the King Shaka International Airport. Others include the Durban International Convention Centre, OR Tambo International Airport, the Sandton Convention Centre, Monte Casino and Inkosi Albert Luthuli hospital.
EJP has recently been involved in the construction of the R400 million 765 kV transmission line from Vryheid to the Umfolozi area, but it also operates a division to take care of maintenance and breakdowns in transmission lines, which are some of the biggest problems faced by power utilities. Last year, the company was also awarded a R150 million contract by the eThekwini municipality to refurbish its transmission lines.
EJP’s ability to remove conductors without switching off the power on transmission lines during maintenance comes from a partnership with a North American-based company, Quanta Services. Allteck Line Contractors, a Quanta Services operating unit, supplies EJP with technical know-how and robotic arms, for which EJP holds sole African distribution rights.
Quanta Services has over 13 000 employees operating in excess of 19 000 pieces of specialised equipment in North America in the electrical, telecommunications and specialty services marketplace.
Quanta’s robotic arm has been used widely in the US since it was created to deal with blackouts caused by hurricane disasters.
In SA, EJP has been using them for maintenance and breakdown purposes since 2008. This includes work for Johannesburg Power (City Power) and Richards Bay, which consumes as much electricity as the city of Johannesburg.
To do this work, EJP has been using the Austrian made Palfinger PK 100002 Performance cranes. According to Palfinger Southern Africa’s technical sales manager, Markus Tiefenboeck, these cranes are setting new standards in the heavy-duty crane league. "With a maximum lifting capacity of 30 tons and a maximum outreach of 30 m, they are the biggest cranes currently in use in SA", he says.
“Along with their extreme precision of movement, the most difficult lifting jobs can be carried out in a tight space. The optimal power-to-weight ratio results from the use of high-quality fine-grained structural steel that makes for a very light and yet sturdy extension boom system.”
In the past, the cranes were mounted on heavy American trucks. Now heavy-duty trucks manufactured by Astra, the Italian manufacturer in the Iveco/Fiat stable, have become the vehicle of choice after three 8x6 tractors were bought to do maintenance and breakdown work for Johannesburg Power.
Fred Visser, GM (Africa) of Energized Services, a new Quanta Services/EJP division that looks after the Johannesburg Power contract, is particularly impressed with the vehicles’ fuel efficiency and reliability.
They are so impressed with the vehicles' performance that EJP commercial director Simon Wilkinson has ordered two more for the construction division.
Astra trucks are imported fully assembled by Rivonia-based Autumn Star Trading. According to Mark Templeton, the Astra is a niche brand focusing on off-road and abnormal load applications, especially in the timber, sugarcane, mining and construction industries. There are about 210 different basic models with two, three, four and five axles, covering the spectrum from 21 to 250 ton GCM. Using truck-tractors and chassis-cab platforms as the base, they are able to carry high capacity tippers, concrete mixers, cranes, water and fuel tanks, concrete pumps, drill rigs and mobile workshops.
Astra was founded in 1946 as re-furbishers of military vehicles for civilian use and was purchased by the Iveco group in 1986.
Today, Astra trucks share around 60% of their components with the Iveco brand, ensuring a high degree of cost saving. The continuous research and application of advanced technologies in the improvement of the product ensure the high standards in quality and confirm the success of the off-road Italian brand worldwide.
The extra-heavy duty truck range with Euro 3 engines, moved into South Africa only a few years ago after the right-hand drive version became available. Currently there are just under a thousand Astra left and right-hand drive vehicles running in Southern African from Angola east through Zambia to Mozambique and down into South Africa.
The Astra 8x8 and 8x6 truck chassis cab used by EJP can carry a 35 ton payload using a standard steel suspension, a feat few of Astra’s competitors can match, if at all.