Australian-listed company Sunbird Energy is fast-tracking the development of the Ibhubesi gas project off South Africa’s west coast, which could pave the way for a multi-billion rand investment that would significantly boost the country’s gas-to-electricity generation capacity.

According to Business Day, Sunbird CEO Will Barker told delegates at the African Mining Indaba in Cape Town on Tuesday that the company aimed to complete the preliminary field development plan in the first half of this year and get the front-end engineering and design studies for the project under way.

Sunbird Energy received government approval for the acquisition of the Ibhubesi gas project last October, establishing it as the operator of South Africa’s largest and most advanced undeveloped gas field with a 76% working interest, with national oil company PetroSA holding the remaining 24% of the licence.

In December, Sunbird signed a memorandum of understanding with South African state power company Eskom to jointly investigate supplying gas from Ibhubesi to Eskom’s 1300 megawatt Ankerlig power station, to replace the plant’s current high-cost diesel feed stock.

Eskom is also currently developing plans to convert Ankerlig from an open cycle gas turbine to a closed cycle gas turbine plant, so that it can run on gas.

Eskom spokesman Andrew Etzinger told Business Day on Tuesday that such a conversion was attractive as it would double the plant’s efficiency.

“No hard decisions have been made, but we are looking at the feasibility of the conversion of the plant, with the important parameters of the gas price and its availability”, Etzinger told Business Day. “It’s early days, but it’s a good opportunity.”

Sunbird Energy chairman Kerwin Rana, in a statement following the signing of the memorandum of understanding in December, said his company was “delighted to be working with Eskom to progress this nationally significant project of domestic gas supply for South Africa.

“Additionally, we acknowledge the support of our joint venture partner in the project PetroSA (24%), the national oil company of South Africa, as well as our South African black empowerment partner Umbono Capital, in bringing these discussions to this important stage.”