Temporary bypass of pollution rules at Kusile
Load-shedding levels could be cut The exemption will allow Eskom to return capacity to the grid more than 12 months sooner than would have been possible
Eskom has been granted an exemption from complying with air-quality regulations so that it can implement a temporary fix at Kusile power station and bring power back onto the grid quicker.
This could cut the need for load-shedding by about 2,000MW, equal to two stages of load-shedding by November. But environmental groups have warned that it will also expose those working at the plant and people living near Kusile to increased levels of air pollution and result in more pollution related deaths in Mpumalanga.
The department of forestry, fisheries & the environment said on Wednesday that Eskom had been granted an exemption from the "lengthy process" required to amend its atmospheric emission licence, subject to certain strict conditions.
Electricity supply from Eskom’s coal-fired fleet, which was already under strain, suffered a major setback in 2022 when three units at Kusile, with combined generation capacity of 2,100MW, had to be shut down — contributing to two full stages of load-shedding.
This was after a 9m diameter flue duct for unit 1 collapsed under the weight of ash build up inside the pipe in October.
The exemption in terms of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act will allow Eskom to return this capacity to the grid more than 12 months sooner than would have been possible without the exemption.
According to the department, the temporary solution proposed for Kusile envisages that Eskom will operate the temporary stacks without the use of the flue gas desulphurisation mechanism for 13 months. That is likely to result in increased sulphur dioxide emissions during the period, in excess of the current applicable limit contained in Kusile’s atmospheric emission licence.
"Eskom’s request pertains to a temporary solution to restore lost generation capacity at its Kusile power station while a damaged stack undergoes repairs which are due for completion in December 2024. In the interim, Eskom plans to construct the temporary stacks by November 2023, which it anticipates will allow the resumption of generation capacity of 2,100MW," said environment minister Barbara Creecy.
Eskom will now need to apply to the National Air Quality Officer for a one-off postponement with the compliance time frames for minimum emission standards for new plants.
Life After Coal, a joint campaign by the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg said the proposed bypass of Kusile’s fluegas desulphurisation pollution control would have major health consequences for the people living in the airshed of the power station.
In a letter sent to the department of forestry, fisheries & the environment last week Life After Coal said the air quality on the Mpumalanga highveld has already been found to be in violation of section 24 of the constitution. "Further uncontrolled pollution will significantly worsen this constitutional violation."
According to one study that projects the expected health effects, including air pollution related deaths, due to unabated sulphur dioxide emissions from the units at Kusile, this could result in hundreds of deaths.
In the report commissioned by Life After Coal, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) found that at low utilisation (33%) for 13 months, there could be up to 195 air pollution related deaths, while at high utilisation for 13 months, this could rise to 492 deaths.
Over 36 months air pollution related deaths could rise to between 540 and 1,362 deaths.
This, according to Life After Coal, would be over and above the "existing public health disaster on the Mpumalanga highveld where particulate matter from coal-fired power already kills more than 2,200 people per year".
"The societal costs associated with the health impacts would be a projected R3.6bn in the low utilisation, 13 months scenario, and about R25bn in the high utilisation, 36 months scenario," according to the report.
Creecy said she was aware of the health and associated effects of exposure to sulphur dioxide emissions, particularly on communities in proximity to coal-fired stations. However, this had to be weighed against the socioeconomic effects of load-shedding. "In the light of the competing factors, I have been called on to make an extraordinarily difficult decision."
Francesca de Gasparis, executive director for the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute said this decision by the department was made as part of a "legacy of poor decision making and inadequate maintenance and management of its power fleet by Eskom".
One of the conditions attached to the exemption is that Eskom will have to undertake measures to mitigate against the exposure of its employees and communities to harm.
Fix: The Kusile power station has been granted an exemption from complying with air-quality regulations. Freddy Mavunda