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André de Ruyter on Eskom’s serious air pollution problems

‘Eskom is working towards the closure of its older coal-fired power plants’ – CEO.

This is the fifth article from Chris Yelland’s interview with Eskom CEO André de Ruyter. It covers Eskom’s non-compliance with the minimum emission standards (MES) of South Africa, and the views, solutions and way forward envisaged by the new CEO for the embattled national electricity utility in this regard. 

Read the previous articles in this series:

Eskom CEO on the need to restructure
Eskom CEO on debt and monetary issues
Eskom CEO on climate change and the just energy transition
De Ruyter on business, regulatory and operational issues facing Eskom

  • On plans to avoid installing flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) plant at Medupi…

There has been massive air pollution for years from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, resulting most recently in a damning non-compliance notice issued by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEEF) in respect of Kendal, with demands for shut-downs and action plans. Other than end-of-life decommissioning and applying for compliance exemptions, are there any plans to upgrade Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, specifically regarding SO2 emissions, to comply with SA laws?

Yes, Chris, we have plans, and we are costing these plans. For example, we are investigating the cost versus benefit of the project to install flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) plant at Medupi in order to meet SO2 emission requirements. It is estimated that FGD plant for Medupi will cost some R42-billion, which is exceptionally expensive, and there are other considerations that need to be borne in mind. 

First of all, FGD plant at Medupi would consume electricity – about 900 MW – in order to operate. So, the net energy delivered into the grid will go down, while per unit CO2 emissions, measured in tonnes of CO2 emitted per unit of MWh generated into the grid, will go up. 

In addition, substantial quantities of water will be required to operate the FGD plant. Medupi is located near Lephalale in Limpopo Province, a very arid area of SA. So, we will have to divert scarce water resources to Medupi at great cost if we are to proceed with the FGD plant there. 

We will also need to rail in substantial quantities of limestone in order to operate the FGD plant at Medupi. Just the cost of transporting this limestone to Medupi, let alone the cost of the limestone itself, is estimated at about R22 billion over a 20-year period. 

These are very significant factors to bear in mind, considering that at ground level, the Lephalale ambient air quality is significantly better than the minimum requirements of the air-quality standards in respect of SO2. Again, the distinction between stack point emission standards and ambient air-quality standards is important. 

So, rather than installing FGD plant at Medupi, we are investigating if it is possible rather to deploy the R42-billion to accelerate the repurposing of our old coal-fired power stations, which will have a far more significant impact on air quality in the Mpumalanga airshed. These plans are being developed and discussed, and if we are able to get the approval of the relevant authorities for this plan, the overall air quality in SA will see an improvement. 

This will also accelerate the so-called ‘just energy transition’, and we will be able to shift funds on which we would earn a negative return, to projects on which we can earn a positive return, and in this process contribute to the financial sustainability of Eskom going forward.

  • On Eskom’s plans to reduce the health impacts of poor air quality…

With studies commissioned by Eskom, indicating that burning coal in its power stations results in significant health impacts and over 300 premature deaths a year, does Eskom have any concerns about a class-action by persons, families and communities that suffer damages as a result of Eskom’s pollution, including chronic illness, and the loss of life, ability to work and income?

Of course, the best way to avoid a class action is to address the fundamental and underlying problems, and we have been working at this for quite some time, in fact since the early 1980s. 

The most concerning air pollution consists of particulate matter based on ambient air-quality monitoring, and not necessarily point emission measurements at the power station stack. This is an important distinction to bear in mind when considering pollution and the impacts of the various pollutants on the general public. 

In conjunction with plans to retire older coal-fired power stations, our current emission reduction plan will see a decrease in particulate emissions of some 63% over the next 15 years. So, we are addressing this matter, and it will take time. But we are very cognisant that this needs serious attention. 

We are also rolling out a sizeable air-quality offset programme intended to improve the quality of air breathed by communities near our power stations. This arises from studies done independently, both locally and internationally, which show the most significant air pollution contributors to poor health in these communities occurs from the burning of coal with high volatiles content at the low temperatures typical of indoor domestic cooking and heating applications. So, this programme will involve helping communities with fuel switching from burning of coal and paraffin indoors, to use of electricity and gas, together with improved ceiling insulation. 

In the Vaal area, which is different from Mpumalanga, communities do not use coal to the same extent for cooking and heating. What we see there is that the pollution at ground level is primarily from the burning of waste in poor communities. So, we are investigating and collaborating with local authorities to reduce this burning of waste. Of course, one the ways to do this is simply to improve the collection of waste. 

We intend to start the roll-out at 5800 houses within the next few months, dependent on the duration of the lockdown, which is a factor that has really disrupted much of our planning throughout Eskom. This initial phase will then be followed with offset interventions in several communities in Mpumalanga, and also the Vaal area, which will eventually impact some 32 000 households. 

Thus, we conservatively estimate that we will be touching the lives and improving the health of more than 150 000 people who are currently exposed to indoor air pollution. So, both from an Eskom emissions perspective, as well as from emissions that are not attributable to Eskom, we are trying our best to improve air quality.

  • On the legacy of coal and the way forward…

If just one-tenth of the 300+ persons who die prematurely each year from the burning of coal by Eskom were to die prematurely from radiation sickness at Koeberg, I am sure the NNR would shut the power station immediately. Why is it different for coal, and why is the death of a worker on-site treated so differently from an off-site death caused by Eskom’s business activities?

This is a regrettable historical legacy that is attributable to the fact that we are emerging from a coal-dominated energy mix. As you know, the average age of our power stations is 32 years, and these power stations were constructed in an era when emissions compliance legislation was significantly more lax than it is today. 

Retrofitting our power stations now with air pollution control equipment is going to be very time-consuming and very expensive. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know better the negative impacts of burning coal to generate electricity. To this end, and to mitigate these impacts, we are actively pursuing our end-goal of sustainable development. 

You will be aware, based on the previous interviews that I have had with you, that we are pursuing a just transition for coal communities that will eventually enable us to see improved health, social and economic benefits. But this is not going to happen quickly. It will take time, and the sooner we kick-start this programme the better, and the sooner we will be able to see the improvement that we are all seeking. 

  • On the decommissioning of Eskom’s old coal-fired power stations…

Early retirement of Eskom’s ageing fleet will benefit air quality, human health and the climate, and save substantial retrofit costs and water. Can you be more specific about the decommissioning plans and timing for Eskom’s ageing, non-compliant power stations? Or is this dependent on financial and operational considerations, with peoples’ health being the sacrificial lamb?

Chris, Eskom is working towards the closure of its older coal-fired power plants on the trajectory indicated in the integrated resource plan for electricity, IRP 2019. This is fully disclosed in the IRP, and also in the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) roadmap for the restructuring of Eskom and the electricity supply industry in South Africa. 

We have already placed a number of our older and less efficient coal-fired generator units – some 14 units totalling 1969 MW – in long-term preservation, and we don’t anticipate that these will return to service. This is already contributing to lowering our emissions footprint. Furthermore, we will be retiring approximately 8000 to 10 000 MW of coal-fired power plant over the next ten years, and this will result in a reduction of at least 30% in our NOx and SO2 emissions. 

However, electricity needs to be generated in order to sustain the economy. For this purpose, we are actively working towards the repurposing of our older coal-fired power stations which are due for decommissioning. We have thus issued calls for expressions of interest from both business and the general public for ideas on how best to do this, and how to accelerate the repurposing. 

  • On perceptions of a lack of transparency and disclosure by Eskom…

There was a recent ruling by DEFF Minister Barbara Creecy against her own department, which, supported by Eskom and others, tried to withhold disclosure of information on Eskom’s emissions for the next five years, and its plans to reduce these. Why did Eskom object to such disclosure, and what lessons has Eskom learned from Creecy’s ruling?

Eskom has, for a long time, been disclosing its greenhouse gas emissions in our Integrated Development Report since 1990, long before it was a legislative requirement to do so. We were also making data available on the Eskom website. 

The objection we had to the disclosure was based on a 2015 forecast of greenhouse gas emissions for 2018/19 and early 2020. Our objection was that we felt this forecast was out-of-date and based on factors and parameters that were applicable at that time, and not reflective of where we are today. So, there is no objection to disclosing the greenhouse gas emissions, provided we do it with up-to-date information, and we will share this with DEFF, and also with the general public.

The lesson we have learnt here is that there is a perception, and it’s more than just a perception, that Eskom is not sufficiently transparent, and I know that you are one of those who are advocating for greater and more timely release of information, particularly when it comes to generation. 

We are working on this, and we are going to be improving our transparency and disclosure. We are bench-marking Eskom with other utilities internationally, and once we have an appropriate template for such disclosure, we will be able to share more information on a real-time basis with the public.

Chris Yelland is managing director of EE Business Intelligence

© Copyright 2020 – EE Business Intelligence (Pty) Ltd. All rights reserved. This article may not be published
without the written permission of EE Business Intelligence.

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Will someone please give this man a deep glass of bootlegged Bells.

‘’In a perfect world, there won’t be Global warming, with or without pollution”
The Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century when agricultural societies became more industrialized and urban. The transcontinental railroad, the cotton gin, electricity, and other inventions permanently changed society.
Were these people worried about the next generations or did they have to survive and look after their own interests?
Thereafter from the 19 the to 20 Th Century more intention like:
Nuclear Power. Nuclear power was to the twentieth century what steam power had been to the nineteenth: a game-changer.
The Personal Computer. It’s difficult to imagine our world today without computers. … Airplane, the Automobile, Rocketry, the submarine, antibiotics, television, etc.
Were these people worried about the next generations or did they have to survive and look after their own interests?
The best inventions of the 21 st century are: Artificial Intelligence, Sci-fi movies from older times feature talking robots and computers that can think for themselves, the Electric Car, the Apple iPod, Facebook, YouTube, Smartphones, AbioCor Artificial Heart, Driverless cars, etc.
My view is that energy was crucial in all these developments – Chemical energy is energy stored in the bonds of atoms and molecules. Batteries, biomass, petroleum, natural gas, and coal are examples of chemical energy.
We are living in Africa – we have massive reserves of coal and we have spent billions on coal power plants – it is a thermal power station which burns coal to generate electricity.
The rest of the world are doing the same – some a bit less, but they are ‘’fracking for oil’’ etc. but so far we don’t.
We should now be much more concerned about our main source of energy (coal), Govind 19, and rebuilding our economy…
The next generation can fix/invent/apply/demolish/scrap whatever they want to – it’s their problem if they are concerned about anything!
Charity begins at home!

He who controls the energy controls the world. This is what Hitler realised to his shock and horror when his mighty, unstoppable tank battalions ran out of fuel.

What is the use of waging war to secure the oil fields of the Middle-East, and using your military influence to control the oil fields of South America, and when fracking turned your country into a nett exporter of oil, if any nation with a coal bed can circumvent your monopoly on energy? When oil and coal are of strategic importance to your imperialist strategies, then global warming is the ultimate weapon to intimidate your competition. When energy security is a strong point of your international competitor, attack him at his weak points. Simply remove his competitive advantage by swinging the opinion of that country’s voting public against coal and oil, to negate their strong point.

If you have successfully built your entire modern economy on oil, then prevent other emerging nations from taking your market share by breaking their knees.

The basic old SWOT analysis on a global scale.

”Absolutely” !

What I love about this is the warm and fuzzy words like “just energy transition”. Straight outta da SJW playbook. What is missing in this interview is the destination. It’s all very well to unfriend coal in a fit of pique but replace it it with what? Yes, SA has abundant wind and solar potential but these sources are intermittent and unreliable. No country has ever succeeded in energy self sufficiency using renewable energy in the absence of hydro power. Places like Denmark, Germany and South Australia have tried and failed. They ended up with the most expensive electricity in the world, at various times. What they never mention is that they import power from their neighbours when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun ain’t shining. Where will SA import power from? Zimbabwe? Lesotho? The problem with renewables is that they can never supply the right amount of energy at the right time at the right price at the right place. The CSIR document “roadmap” is fundamentally flawed as the principal premise is decarbonisation not reliable, affordable & accessible electricity.

End of comments.

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