ENERGY CRISISThere are greener, healthier ways to respond to Kusile pollution problem
Eskom’s plan to bypass control of sulphur dioxide emissions will result in many deaths, even if out of sightMelissa FourieConfronted by Greenpeace activists at the African Energy Indaba, mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe reportedly told the audience: "If we want ghost towns and therefore want to breathe fresh air in darkness, it is up to us."
What Mantashe refers to as "fresh air" is in fact air that is not so polluted that it causes ill health or death. This "fresh air" is not a luxury but an essential element of life. We have a right to an environment that is not harmful to our health or wellbeing — which also becomes a right to life if that environment is so polluted that we can no longer live in it.
The truth of the matter is that it is not the readers of this article, nor indeed Mantashe, who have to sacrifice their health and lives so that others can have electricity. It is the people who live within the bounds of the airshed of Eskom’s toxic coal plants: the people of Gauteng; of Emalahleni, Middelburg, Delmas, Komati, Hendrina and Phola in Mpumalanga; and of Lephalale and surrounds in Limpopo.
This brings us to Eskom’s latest plan to get three units at Kusile coal power station in Mpumalanga back into operation. Kusile is the only Eskom power station that integrated into its design and build flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) to control its emissions of the pollutant sulphur dioxide — and only because desulphurisation was a condition of the international development finance for the plant.
In October 2022 a 9m diameter flue duct for Eskom’s Kusile unit 1 collapsed under the weight of ash build-up inside the pipe. According to a news report, "the position it came to rest in rendered units 2 and 3, [which] share the chimney, inoperable due to the risks of further damage or, potentially, a collapse of the entire chimney".
With three units at Kusile offline in a worsening energy crisis, Eskom proposed a temporary solution to — it says — restore an alleged 2,160MW of power to the grid. This "solution" is to build a temporary stack to bypass the FGD plant entirely. This means Kusile units 1-3 would have no sulphur dioxide pollution control in place at all, dumping thousands of tonnes of it into the atmosphere.
On Wednesday the department of forestry, fisheries & the environment announced that Eskom had been granted an expedited process for applying for an exemption from complying with air quality regulations so that it can implement a temporary fix at Kusile and bring power back onto the grid more quickly.
Eskom says bypassing the FGD plant would allow it to return generation capacity of 2,100MW to the grid more than 12 months sooner than would have been possible without the exemption. The questionable legality of allowing such a measure aside, Eskom’s claim, which amounts to two stages of load-shedding, is dubious at best. Before the stack failure, Kusile only produced at about 33% of its capacity, equivalent to 700MW, less than one stage of load-shedding.
Sulphur dioxide is a priority pollutant under the Air Quality Act and responsible for primary and secondary air pollution in the air we breathe. It causes various kinds of ill health, including respiratory afflictions, chronic wheeze, decline in lung function, upper respiratory tract irritation and bronchoconstriction. It also kills people.
If Kusile operates at its pre-stack-collapse production rate of about 33% without sulphur dioxide pollution control for 13 months (which is how much earlier Eskom says the bypass would allow the units to return to service), it is projected by expert air quality and health modellers that 195 people will die prematurely from the pollution. If it were to operate at 100% without pollution control for 13 months, 492 people are projected to die prematurely.
If the bypass stack runs for three years, between 540 and 1,362 people are projected to die from the sulphur dioxide pollution, depending on the production rate at Kusile. This is on top of the existing public health disaster that is the Mpumalanga highveld, in which the fine particulate matter from Eskom’s coal-fired power is already killing more than 2,200 people every year. These are the people all of SA needs to look in the eye: the people for whom "fresh air" is a matter of life and death.
At this stage it is not clear how much the bypass proposal would cost Eskom. We know the health costs of air pollution run into the tens of billions of rand every month from early deaths, air pollution illnesses and missed work and school days. So the question is whether there are better ways to spend the many millions of rand that would go into building this bypass stack — other ways that could actually reduce load-shedding, strengthen our present and future energy access and security in the short-, medium- and long-term — and that would enhance health and prosperity.
What if we could instead use the funds to roll out solar photovoltaic (PV) or wind energy, at scales ranging from household and commercial through subsidies, to large-scale Eskom solar (which could be done quickly if on Eskom land)? What if we used the funds to kick-start a rooftop solar PV programme, both residential and industrial, in Mpumalanga?
Such a programme would avoid major investment in grid expansion and lengthy regulatory approvals. It would take demand off the grid and reduce energy poverty and outdoor and indoor air pollution, saving lives and health costs.
Making us choose between electricity and people’s health is a false and cruel choice. We have other options that are cheaper, quicker and that allow us to emerge from the transition without causing further ill health and death — in fact, people’s lives and health would be vastly improved.
Fourie is executive director of nonprofit environmental public interest law organisation the Centre for Environmental Rights, which represents Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action and groundWork in the deadly air pollution court case.