Debt-ridden Eskom faced with ‘complex issues’ in its just transition to clean energy

By shutting down half its coal-fired power plants between now and 2035 and adopting cleaner technologies as part of its just energy transition, Eskom will contribute to cleaner air in the polluted province of Mpumalanga.

Deidre Herbst, Eskom’s environmental manager, was speaking at a session on a just energy transition in Africa through the lens of the climate, health and air quality at a recent forum on sustainability, research and innovation, a joint initiative of Future Earth and the Belmont Forum. It was hosted by the Future Africa Institute at the University of Pretoria.

“When we look at the nexus of climate change and air quality in a South African scenario, what we find is that most of our power stations are in one province [Mpumalanga],” Herbst said. “So, on the one hand, we have a just energy transition where we’re shutting down many power plants and we need to make sure that we do that in a responsible and effective manner.

“On the other side, we have the air quality legislation, which requires us to reduce emissions from operating power stations at a significant cost, both from a financial point of view as well as an environmental point of view.”

In the middle of this, she said, are people who live near Eskom’s 12 power stations in Mpumalanga. 

On the one hand, they are being affected socio-economically, “because we’re shutting down many power plants in one province”, and on the other, they are “being exposed to elevated levels of air quality from power stations but also from indoor air pollution and outdoor pollution”.

In March, in a landmark judgment in the Deadly Air court case, the high court in Pretoria found that the poor air quality in the Highveld Priority Area was in breach of residents’ constitutional right to an environment not harmful to their health and well-being. 

The court said air pollution on the Mpumalanga Highveld was responsible for premature deaths, decreased lung function, deterioration of the lungs and heart, and the development of diseases such as asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, tuberculosis and cancer. Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy has filed an application for leave to appeal parts of the judgment.

Herbst said that as Eskom repowers and repurposes the power stations it is closing down, this “will hopefully create local jobs and compensate for the jobs and industry lost in the area”.

On the air quality side, the utility has “quite a different challenge”. 

“We are required to comply with new plant standards at our power stations and that complying with new plant standards on six of our power stations, which close post-2030, has got a huge price tag of R300-billion. It uses a lot of additional water, it will create millions of tons of additional waste, and it will reduce the air quality and improve the air quality in the Mpumalanga area,” she said.

“Now, we have two programmes and both … need finances. And on the air quality side, if we start implementing the air quality projects, many of the stations will close down before we’ve actually finished those projects so we need to think about how we spend this R300-billion and where is it best spent. 

“Is it best spent on transitioning to cleaner technologies, or is it best spent on reduction of emissions because we know that we are financially constrained and we don’t necessarily have the money to do both.” 

Added to that, “if you really want to address the health impacts you also need to address indoor health pollution”, she said, referencing Eskom’s offset project, “which transitions houses to be insulated, and to have fuel switching from coal stoves, to a combination of LPG gas and electricity”.

Eskom is faced with these “very complex issues”, she said. “We need to make decisions in terms of where do we spend our money, how do we transition in a just and fair manner and how do we make sure we create sustainable jobs while we move towards net zero carbon emissions by 2050.” 

Herbst suggested that policy and regulation be reconsidered.

“Traditionally we’ve separated air quality and climate change policy and regulation. Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and look at climate change and air quality legislation together and make holistic decisions which will achieve both because just shutting down power stations will actually achieve a 70% reduction in sulphur dioxide by 2035. So, that will itself result in less pollution and less health impacts in the Mpumalanga area.”

At the recent virtual launch of a new documentary, Voices From Under a Dark Cloud: Towards a Just Transition In the Coalfields of South Africa, Eskom’s chief executive, André de Ruyter, said the utility needed to play its part in cleaning up the environment. 

“Coal mining and the coal value chain has left some indelible scars on the landscape of Mpumalanga. Repurposing that land to renewable energy offers a very elegant, just outcome, to also addressing some environmental damage in the process of coal mining,” De Ruyter said.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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