(Empty) promises of ‘clean coal’ power generation technologies for SA

Why pay more for so-called ‘clean coal’ technologies when there are cleaner and cheaper alternatives that create more jobs, use less water and have lower emissions?
A worker walks past coal stores at the Grootvlei power station, operated by Eskom. Image: Dean Hutton, Bloomberg

The promises of new coal-fired power generation capacity in South Africa (post the Medupi and Kusile power stations), and in particular, the promise of ‘clean coal’ technologies, has long been in the country’s planning pipeline, but have perhaps been short of a reality check as to the actual potential for delivery.

In terms of South Africa’s previous Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity, IRP 2010 – 2030, a further 6 250 MW of new coal-fired power plant was planned for construction by 2030, in addition to Eskom’s 4 800 MW Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations that were still under construction at the time.

In 2014, as part of this plan, the IPP (Independent Power Producers) Office of the then Department of Energy commenced a procurement process for 2500 MW of coal-fired electricity from IPPs, in the first rounds of the so-called Coal Baseload IPP Procurement Programme.

Two preferred consortiums were finally announced in 2016 as the outcome of the first bid window – one being the Thabametsi project in the coal-rich Waterberg area of Limpopo, and the other the Khanyisa IPP Project near Emalahleni in Mpumalanga.

The Thabametsi coal-fired power station, was to be sited outside the town of Lephalale, and would have been largely owned by Marubeni Corporation of Japan and South Korean power utility, Kepco. The first phase of the project would have a capacity of 557 MW, with the ultimate intended capacity being 1 200 MW.

The 306 MW Khanyisa coal-fired power station would have used discard coal from the Kleinkopje thermal coal colliery previously owned by Anglo American, and would have largely been owned by Saudi Arabian power company, ACWA Power.

Both the Thabametsi and Khanyisa power plants were to be designed around circulating fluidised bed (CFB) boiler technology operating at sub-critical pressure and temperature, giving efficiencies of about 32%.

However, despite having been awarded preferred bidder status in 2016, neither the Thabametsi nor the Khanyisa coal-fired power projects could achieve financial closure by 2021. Both projects were ultimately abandoned as commercial banks withdrew their funding, amid multiple legal challenges in respect of climate change, water licence, air pollution and environmental concerns.

It is therefore quite remarkable that South Africa’s latest Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity, IRP 2019, still plans for 1 500 MW of new coal-fired power generation capacity by 2030, with the first 750 MW scheduled to come onto the grid in 2023, and the second 750 MW scheduled for 2027.

It is virtually inconceivable that financial institutions would fund any such new coal-fired generation capacity in South Africa.

But even if this were possible, it is patently impossible for 750 MW of new coal-fired generation capacity to be constructed for delivery of electricity into the grid by 2023.

DMRE goes ahead

However, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) seem oblivious to these “challenges”.

DMRE Minister Gwede Mantashe has already issued a Section 34 determination under the Electricity Regulation Act for the 1 500 MW of new coal-fired power generation capacity by 2030 detailed in IRP 2019. He has further indicated that the IPP Office will be issuing a request for proposals before the end of 2021 for the first 750 MW tranche, through a new bid window of the Coal Baseload IPP Procurement programme.

While little detail is provided as to the specifics of the technologies to be used for the 1 500 MW of new coal-fired power generation capacity, preference is expressed in IRP 2019 for high-efficiency low-emission (HELE) technologies. These would include underground coal gasification, integrated gasification combined cycle, carbon capture utilisation and storage, ultra-supercritical, super-critical and similar technologies.

IRP 2019 goes on to claim that the earlier Coal Baseload IPP Procurement programme has shown that there is a business case for modular and smaller coal-fired power plants (300 MW and 600 MW), while ignoring the fact that both the Thabametsi and Khanyisa projects have been abandoned.

In the meantime, a new report by internationally renowned coal power plant expert Dr. Ranajit (Ron) Sahu confirms that the proposed 1500 MW of new coal-fired power generation capacity will cause significant air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, even if the cleanest technology currently available is used.

Sahu, an engineer with over 30 years’ experience in power plant design, has assessed the potential air emissions of the most likely types of HELE technology that could be used, as part of a report commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER ) for groundWork, the Vukani Environmental Movement in Action, and the African Climate Alliance.

WATCH: Chris Yelland interviews Dr Ranajit (Ron) Sahu

Sahu has found that even in the best-case scenario, in which the cleanest available technology is used, large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions are unavoidable.

In particular, Sahu considered two likely technologies that could be used: pulverised coal units and circulating fluidised bed technology. He found that pulverised coal units – even when operating at ultra-supercritical efficiency – will not be able to capture their emitted carbon dioxide due to extremely high costs.

In the case of circulating fluidised bed technology, which is considered preferable by the IRP due to its ability to handle low quality coal, Sahu found that this technology emits from two to ten times more nitrous oxide than pulverised coal technologies. Nitrous oxide is a potent, long-lasting greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 300 times that of carbon dioxide.

Sahu further concluded that none of the so-called ‘clean coal’ technologies could meet the requirements in IRP 2019 of being proven in service, economically viable and deliverable in the timeframes required by 2030.

“I want to stress that contrary to implications in IRP 2019 and the ministerial determination, there is simply no such thing as ‘clean coal’, regardless of whether HELE technologies are used to minimise air emissions from coal (or gas derived from coal),” says Sahu.

The report is the latest piece of research that supports the view that new coal generation in South Africa will be unnecessary, costly and highly detrimental to the environment. It follows previous investigations into the coal cycle (mining, production, supply, and disposal) that prove that ‘clean coal’ is currently an impossibility.

“New coal generation flies in the face of the South African government’s obligation under international and South African law, including the South African Constitution, to take all reasonable measures to protect its people from the impacts of climate change”.

It is clear that not only is it impossible to substantially and sufficiently mitigate the harmful effects of burning coal, and the associated high greenhouse gas emissions, but also that the more efficient a coal plant, the more expensive it is.

This makes coal-fired power even more uncompetitive with cleaner alternatives, and begs the question: Why pay more for so-called ‘clean coal’ technologies when there are cleaner and cheaper alternatives that create more jobs, use less water and have much lower greenhouse gas emissions?

It would certainly appear from the report by Sahu that the coal mining, coal transporting and coal burning industries in South Africa are being fed empty promises of new, clean coal-fired power generation, that are unlikely to ever materialise. Energy sector wags suggest that these empty promises may simply be intended to keep noisy coal-sector stakeholder groups quiet in misguided, optimistic hope.

© Copyright 2021 – EE Business Intelligence (Pty) Ltd. All rights reserved.

Chris Yelland is editor of EE Business Intelligence

This article may not be published without the written permission of EE Business Intelligence.


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Chris, I will bow to your superior knowledge but maybe comment on how many, many first world countries can “burn” refuse (rubbish, waste whatever) as RDF and limit pollution issues to acceptable limits?

Surely this can be done with a consistent fuel like coal?

So in brief. Get solar energy from your roof ASAP or go broke paying for government electricity.

The problem is – and this is a guarantee – once sufficient solar generation is in place, that will be taxed to make your eyes water. So, go broke you will; after all, it appears to be the government’s strategy and goal.

This government seems incapable of throwing the bones and seeing what lies in the future. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the viewfinder by the private sector and forced to take a look at what lies ahead.

They really should take a look at some private corporations who take this business of looking ahead very seriously and actually employ to do just that. But ANY CEO worth his salt will be constantly scanning the horizon to see what’s looming. They know that the only constant is CHANGE and you need to anticipate it, otherwise you’ll be left flat-footed and out of sync.

This government is entirely fixated on its own navel. One imagines its because they’re only interested in what’s good for THEM not for the country (and the planet) as a whole.

How entirely dumb; both the Thabanetsi and Khanyisa projects never saw the light of day but Mantashe simply carries on regardless.

Which beggs the question: who sits on the energy parliamentary portfolio committee because surely it’s the job of that committee – if it’s worth it’s salt – to get to the bottom of the continued inclusion of this bogus clean coal technology in the latest IRP!

For one, has any country ever actually built and operated one of these miracle clean-coal plants? And how clean is the air there compared to other technologies? And how do costs compare?
If no acceptable answers are forthcoming, it’s the job of MPs on the committee to get the hoax deleted from the IRP!

Yes, HELE power stations have been built. Except this one in Japan, NL built one from 2008-2014, the Maasvlakte 3 centrale. Besides of the HELE type, it’s rest heat is used for heating buildings in the vicinity. It has already some preparations done on it to start with CCS, carbon capture and storage. I have no idea,how electricity prices compare to other kinds of electricity generation in these areas. I am certainly not advocating these kind of technologies, but bear in mind that in 2007-08, prices of renewables were still considerably higher than now, and probably few predicted that they would drop as dramatically as they did over the last 10,12 years. Interestingly that in the close vicinity of Maasvlakte 3, near Rotterdam, GE erected a prototype of the world’s largest windturbine the Haliade-X, with a total height of 260m in late 2019. This type will be used for massive offshore wind farms at the Doggersbank, a large shallow area in the North Sea and for a windfarm at the NE US coast. NL will stop using their own natural gas in 2023, and intends to phase out coal before 2030. So this ultra modern, super efficient power station will last less than 16 years.
To even consider clean coal power stations while renewables have become so much cheaper for SA, is off course absurd.

Thanks for the info.

I don’t know what Mantashe has on Cyril but he should not be anywhere near the Energy Portfolio. Besides gross incompetence, the man cut his political teeth leading a mining union. He will drag his feet on anything that undermines the coal status quo.

Good morning Chris, it seems Eskom has now passed a new tariff structure for grid feed in of renewables. The tariff structure is about as clear as mud.

Please would you have a look at this generator tariff and see if this makes good sense?

End of comments.



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