'They use our lungs to turn a profit'

Municipalities and private companies are revamping exisiting coal-fuelled power stations, including the privately owned Kelvin plant in Gauteng. (Fredrik Lerneryd, M&G)

Municipalities and private companies are revamping exisiting coal-fuelled power stations, including the privately owned Kelvin plant in Gauteng. (Fredrik Lerneryd, M&G)

Coal-fired power stations are responsible for half of South Africa’s carbon emissions. A 2006 Eskom report said its stations could kill about 600 people a year once they are all operating.

And the country has an ambitious energy plan, the Integrated Resource Plan 2010, which will see half of new energy build coming from renewable sources, in line with its international position that carbon emissions must be reined in to stop average temperatures in Africa increasing by more than 1.5°C this century.

However, thanks to the uncertainty of supply, several private companies and municipalities plan to generate their own power, mostly through the construction or resuscitation of coal-fired power stations.

In February’s state of the province speech, Gauteng Premier David Makhura said several of the province’s plants would be ramped up to full capacity. “We’ve been working with municipalities to finalise plans to bring an additional 1 200MW of electricity by increasing generation capacity of the current coal-fired power stations,” he said.

This included the Rooiwal and Pretoria West plants in Tshwane and the Kelvin power plant near OR Tambo airport. These are all approaching their 60th birthdays.

Kelvin is the only privately owned coal-fired plant in the country, with Investec and Nedbank each controlling half. Its 600MW supplies 20% of Johannesburg’s City Power requirements when it operates at full capacity. But for the last few years it has been producing only 180MW of capacity.

Cape Town municipality requires 2 000MW of capacity available each day, and said earlier this year it was looking at options to supply its own power.

No public consultation needed
Penny-Jane Cooke of Greenpeace Africa says these plants were granted environmental permits when they were built, so can have their production ramped up without having to follow the public consultation and environmental impact assessment path. “Under the guise of us having a power crisis we are going to see a whole load of new coal generation being brought on line without the usually thorough environmental impact assessments needing to be done,” said Cooke.

It is unclear how many cities and towns will be ramping up production to ease load shedding, as the co-operative governance department did not respond to questions.

Cooke says, “When it comes to power there is little public consultation or disclosure of information so we will only know about plants once they are operational.”

This would inevitably lead to a greater health burden on people living near the plants, she says.

Eskom-commissioned reports on the effect of its coal-fired fleet, released last year through a Promotion of Access to Information Act request by the nongovernmental Centre for Environmental Rights, concluded that more than 600 people will die each year from illnesses related to air pollution when the whole fleet of 16 stations is working.

Chest problems and cancer
The report said about 25 000 people would be admitted to hospital, mostly as a result of sulphur dioxide emissions. The World Health Organisation says this causes chest problems and cancer. Medupi would kill 1.4 people a year when operational, the report by Airshed Planning Professionals said.

It covered the Waterberg region of Limpopo and the concentration of Eskom plants in the west of Mpumalanga. Several mining companies are planning to build coal-fired plants in the same areas.

Most of these plants are being proposed by coal miners who will use their existing mines to feed energy production. An example is Kuyasa Mining outside Delmas in Mpumalanga. In 2014, through its subsidiary KiPower, it applied for environmental authorisation to build a 600MW coal-fired plant. Its scoping report says this could be increased to 2 000MW in the future. It says it uses “circular fluidised bed technology”, as well as limestone, to lower the emissions coming from the plant.

The report says this would allow the plant to “meet the department of environmental affairs’s emission standards”. But it also says that daily exceedances of particulate matter – which get lodged in people’s lungs – would occur over a “large area” when the plant’s emissions were included with the mine supplying it. This report was rejected in February by the environmental department, and a new application is being lodged.

In late March, Delmas residents handed over a memorandum to the company and the regional minerals department, asking that any plans for a plant be shelved. It said: “We live with and have first-hand experience of the devastation of coal mining and coal-fired facilities. Ours is a voice that has for far too long been ignored for the benefit of corporate profit derived from coal.”

They allege that a minerals department official at the memorandum handover said: “Mining [permits] will continue to be issued in this country as it is the backbone of this country.”

Eskom runs 12 power plants in the area, each providing more than 2 000MW of power capacity. Delmas is in the Highveld Priority Area, which the environmental department created in a bid to control the excessive levels of air pollution.

Nomcebo Makhubelo, co-ordinator of the Highveld Environmental Justice Network, says there is no space for residents to complain about their poor air quality when new decisions were made.

Rubberstamping authority
“We choke on air in Mpumalanga. They use our lungs to turn a profit.” Government is merely a rubberstamping authority when it comes to companies wanting to dig coal up, or burn it, he says. “We know government is for coal and companies can do whatever they want if they promise to help the power grid. Nobody considers people living near plants.”

Approached for comment this week, the minerals department said it does not have a current list of mines in Mpumalanga and is building a database. The energy department similarly says it is waiting for companies to show their intention to build plants before it can collate them. But there is publicly available information on several plants.

Vedanta Power in Lephalale had a scoping report for a 600MW plant rejected last year. This would supply power to Anglo American Thermal Coal’s mine in the area, as well as mines in Zambia and Namibia. Exxaro Resources and GDF Suez have also mulled a 600MW plant outside Thabametsi, with capacity being doubled to 1 200MW in the coming years, depending on water constraints.

The Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation plans to build a 1 320MW coal-fired plant in the Magaliesburg mountains north of Gauteng.

Makoma Lekalaka, of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, says it has been fighting the granting of power production permits to several private companies. “Government has taken a decision to ensure energy security and this is where you see companies running to provide that energy.”

The environment department was thoroughly interrogating applications and rejecting those that were not up to scratch, she says. “But the problem is we just do not know what is happening. There is no information forthcoming.” 

In last year’s State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma said Eskom would be given permission to build another coal-fired plant. A further 2 500MW of base-load generating capacity would be sourced through independent producers. In December 2014 the energy department called for proposals for the supply of 1 600MW of generating capacity by 2021.

Sipho Kings

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