A Greenpeace activist takes the opportunity, at the Ogies police station, to get the message across regarding the pollution that coal plants generate, after being arrested for climbing a crane inside the Kusile power plant. Photo: Shayne Robinson

The activists arrived at the construction site at dawn, and chained themselves to the front gate.

But as police and security guards got to work with a bolt cutter, a smaller group had made its way through a back entrance.

The crane was unguarded. They began to climb, each hauling a pack of about 25kg: ladder after ladder, climbing harnesses straining against the wind.

At about 100m up, activist Michael Baillie could see the construction site stretching around him: Kusile, Eskom’s newest coal-fired power station.

“The coal site is massive,” he said.

“For most South Africans, the idea of where their electricity comes from doesn’t even occur to them. They switch on a light and don’t realise that coal is burning at that moment.”

Reaching the summit, they let their banners unfurl: “Kusile: climate killer.”

Baillie was one of a group of Greenpeace activists who protested on Monday morning against the construction of the coal-fired power station and what they call South Africa’s “addiction to coal”.

He and eight others were arrested and charged with trespassing and malicious damage to property. They were released on bail and will appear in court in Mpumalanga in two weeks.

“We, as Eskom, engage with Greenpeace and many other NGOs on climate-change issues,” said Eskom spokeswoman Hilary Joffe.

“This is a country debate in which we all need to participate. But we cannot allow illegal entry onto our sites.”

In three weeks’ time, the country will host the UN climate-change talks in Durban, the 17th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP17).

“We would like to see both South Africa and Eskom taking up renewable energy,” said Greenpeace climate campaigner Melita Steele.

“There is no such thing as clean coal.”

More than 90 percent of South Africa’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power stations and contributes to more than half of the country’s total carbon emissions.

In an International Energy Agency report released last month, South Africa was ranked the 16th biggest emitter globally, pumping about 369.4 megatons (Mt) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2009.

On its completion in 2016, Kusile is expected to burn through 17Mt of coal every year, emitting another 37Mt of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. South Africa’s overall emissions will jump by another 10 percent.

And it’s just one of two power stations Eskom is building to answer the huge demand for power in South Africa. Last year, the World Bank approved a $3.75 billion loan to build the Medupi coal-fired power station in Limpopo.

Eskom maintains it is committed to developing clean energy, with two renewable projects in the pipeline – a wind farm in the Western Cape and a solar power plant in the Northern Cape.

But, with both projects set to contribute only 100 megawatts each to the grid – a fraction of the country’s energy requirements – Greenpeace says it’s not enough.

A Greenpeace study conducted by the University of Pretoria examined Kusile’s external costs – like water wastage, health complications, transport costs and damage to the environment – and predicted the annual damage to society to be between R31.2bn and R60.6bn.

“What other country has such great wind and solar energy opportunities?” asked Baillie. “We don’t need Kusile. We don’t want Kusile. It’s time for the government to invest in renewable energy.” - The Star