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Eskom’s fleet of ageing coal-fired power plants and the coal mines that feed them are “dirty, thirsty, inefficient, unhealthy and non-compliant killers”, says energy expert Chris Yelland.

Yet the utility, he charges in a recent presentation, is “publicly quite silent about the pollution, acid mine drainage, health impacts and premature deaths from coal mining operations that supply its plants, as well as the transportation and burning of coal at its power plant”.

Yelland welcomes proposed new air quality rules, drafted by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), that will force the power utility to comply with mandatory air pollution standards or shut down. 

While they “close some loopholes”, he doesn’t believe the proposed rules are stringent enough. The proposed amendments to the law published under the Air Quality Act will only permit one postponement of compliance, for five years, with standards which should be met by April 2020, according to the Life After Coal/Impilo Ngaphandle Kwamalahle campaign, a joint campaign by Earthlife Africa, groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), which has welcomed the planned amendments.

The new provisions would allow industrial facilities, by March 31 next year, to apply for a once-off suspension of compliance time frames with new plant standards if they provide a clear schedule for decommissioning by 2030.

“The new rules will mean that all of Eskom’s stations must make the necessary investments in time to comply with new plant standards by April 1, 2025, unless they have been granted the suspension, and will decommission by no later than 2030, states the campaign. If they cannot meet the standards by this date and have not been granted a suspension, they can no longer operate.”

Eskom on Friday stated that, if passed into law, the proposed amendments would result in an electricity tariff hike of at least 7%.

“So far, Eskom’s strategy has simply been to apply for what it terms ‘rolling postponements’ of compliance with pollution standards: re-applying for postponements of compliance every five years until the plants are eventually decommissioned,” explains Robyn Hugo, head of the CER’s pollution and climate change programme. “That head-in-the-sand strategy must now come to an end.”  

But concerns remain, she says. “Facilities granted this suspension, on the current proposed wording of the legislation, will be permitted to comply with the very weak old plant standards until their decommissioning. This would mean the government would simply allow Eskom to keep polluting and causing ill-health and deaths of South Africans.”

Yelland says the amendments hold serious implications for the utility. “The majority of Eskom’s power plants don’t comply with the old regulations, let alone the proposed new ones. It has applied for these rolling postponements but the funny thing is it has not made its plants compliant and has just applied for further extensions. The truth is that the power stations in South Africa currently wouldn’t comply virtually anywhere else in the world.

“No doubt Eskom will scream blue bloody murder and hold the country to ransom over this, but the trouble is that to get its act together is going to cost a lot of money and it’s in such a bad shape financially and environmentally.”

The joint campaign cites a 2017 health impacts study by Dr Mike Holland which found that Eskom’s emissions cause more than 2 200 equivalent attributable deaths every year and thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually. 

These impacts, Holland found, cost South Africa more than R30 billion annually, through premature deaths, hospital admissions and lost working days. Yet the joint campaign points out how Eskom has been let off the hook by the government, which has allowed it to postpone compliance with air pollution standards, but failed to take enforcement action against Eskom for its polluting activities.

Eskom, for its part, says the draft legislation, as it currently stands, could lead to “material socio-economic implications” for South Africa through an increase in capital cost of between R250bn and R300bn and Eskom’s operational cost by an estimated R3bn to R4bn per year.

“This will result in the need for an electricity tariff increase of at least 7%. In addition, (this) would require an additional 67 million cubic metres of water per annum by 2025 (20% increase).”

The proposed changes, Eskom says, “do bring about a greater longer-term certainty around what is required to ensure the constitutional rights of all people in South Africa to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being are met in terms of air quality. 

“But time frames regarding the draft legislation need to be looked at in terms of the socio-economic implications,” it says.

Eskom says it has progressed with its air quality improvement programme, “which is a phased and prioritised approach to emissions reduction, considering the remaining life of the power stations within its fleet and the impact on ambient air quality".

This includes: 

• Between 1993 and 2010, Eskom installed fabric filter plants at Arnot, Duvha (units 1, 2 and 3), Camden, Hendrina, Grootvlei (units 1, 5 and 6) and Majuba power stations.

• The Grootvlei power station retrofit of fabric filter plant (FFP) on Units 2 to 4 was completed in October 2017.

• Commencement with placing units into extended cold reserve at older power stations.

• Installation of low NOx (nitrogen oxides) burners at four of the units at Camden power station. 

• The refurbishment of the electrostatic precipitators on four of the six units at Matla power station.

• Lethabo power station is busy with phase one of the particulate emissions reduction solution with the installation of high-frequency power supply (HFPS) on all six of its units.

• Planning for the installation of high-frequency transformers to reduce particulates is progressing at Matla and Duvha power stations, while Lethabo, Kendal and Matimba are on track for construction from 2021 to 2025. To date high-frequency transformers have been installed on one unit at Duvha.

• Development work continues for low NOx burner retrofits or replacement at Tutuka, Majuba and Matla, Detailed designs for Majuba Power Station were completed in October last year.

• Medupi and Kusile power stations are being constructed with fabric filter plants and low NOx burners.

• The flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) plant is to be retrofitted to the units at Medupi continues.

• The units at Kusile are being constructed with FGD plant included.

“As set out in the Constitution, there is the need to recognise the interrelationship between the environment and development, the need for the protection of the environment while at the same time to recognise the need for social and economic development,” Eskom says. Yelland calls for a “phased, transition away from the old, non-compliant, coal-fired power plants, to cleaner technologies”.

Yelland says Eskom is "financially and environmentally unsustainable ... There needs to be a phased, just transition away from the old, non-compliant, coal-fired power plants to cleaner technologies "with no new coal power added to the mix going forward both by Eskom and by new coal IPPs".

The Saturday Star