/ 15 December 2021

‘Rule of law’ closes in as Eskom’s applications to postpone compliance with air pollution standards are denied

The debt relief package includes R184 billion in cash over the next three years and thereafter government’s take over of up to R70 billion of Eskom debt if it meets the conditions attached to the relief.
If there are no tariff hikes and no debt solution for Eskom, then just how does the power utility maintain its creaking infrastructure?

South Africa’s former national air quality officer Dr Thuli Khumalo has rejected Eskom’s applications to postpone the implementation of its compliance with pollution standards for five of its coal-fired power stations.

On 30 October, Khumalo denied Eskom’s request for postponements with the minimum emission standards (MES) for the Matla, Duvha, Matimba, Medupi and Lethabo power stations. Khumalo is now the chief operations officer of the Presidential Climate Commission.

In her letter to Eskom, Khumalo said: “The MES were first published in 2010 and Eskom has made minimal effort to fully comply with these standards. The national air quality officer does not have the prerogative to issue decisions that are outside the current legal provisions or are in noncompliance with the law.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Eskom said the decision would have a very significant effect on its ability to provide electricity, warning: “If implemented, the decision will result in an immediate shutting down of 16 000MW of installed coal-fired capacity.” 

The cost of full compliance with the MES is estimated at more than R300-billion, it said, which “will not add any additional capacity to the national grid”.

Eskom said it had received Khumalo’s decisions on 4 November. On Wednesday, a joint statement by the departments and of the environment and public enterprises said the appeal administrator had now granted Eskom approval to file its late appeal against Khumalo’s decisions, which the utility had submitted. 

“Members of the public and stakeholders are requested not to panic as there are no imminent power outages,” the departments said.

Rule of law finally closing in

Timothy Lloyd, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, welcomed Khumalo’s decision to reject Eskom’s applications for weaker limits than prescribed in South Africa’s health-based air pollution laws.

“Eskom was a central stakeholder in setting the minimum emission limits, which were published in 2010. However, Eskom has since used legal mechanisms over the past decade to delay compliance with these limits that exist to protect public health and well-being,” he said.

“As a result of these latest decisions, the rule of law is now finally closing in and it is high time that Eskom management account for the manner in which it has approached, and effectively undermined, the application of these emission limits. This compliance stand-off in which Eskom finds itself is largely self-inflicted.”

During 2019 and 2020, Eskom submitted applications for postponement, suspension and/or alternative limits of the MES for 16 of its power stations. On Tuesday, it said its postponement applications for Majuba, Tutuka, Kendal, and Kriel power stations were partially granted.

It received positive postponement decisions for Grootvlei, Arnot, Hendrina, Camden, Komati, Acacia and Port Rex.

“The coal-fired power stations are scheduled to shut down by 2030, with Komati being the first to shut down its last unit in September 2022 and Hendrina before 2025. The two peaking stations, Acacia and Port Rex, reach their 50-year life in 2026-7,” the utility said.

Khumalo said Eskom failed to demonstrate previous investments for the reduction of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions in the same power stations.

Energy analyst Chris Yelland said that, reading Eskom’s statement “one sees little acknowledgement of the dilatory and criminally negligent role” played by Eskom’s management, executives, board and shareholders for several decades in respect of environmental noncompliance, “to the extent where today Eskom, as a major power generation utility, is at the very bottom of the pile globally when it comes to pollution and carbon emissions”.

“The utility and its shareholders have been kicking the can down the road with a ‘do little’ attitude for several decades. Now Eskom claims poverty and uses the threat of additional  load shedding … as its excuse for further extending its illegal noncompliance,” he said.

In a 2017 study, UK-based air quality and health expert Dr Mike Holland found that 

air pollution from coal-fired power stations kills more than 2 200 South Africans every year. Most of these deaths are due to SO2 emissions, which form deadly PM2.5 particles — fine inhalable particles with diameters generally 2.5 micrometres and smaller.

The “most lethal” of Eskom’s power stations are Medupi, Matimba, Kendal, Lethabo, Matla and Tutuka. Medupi causes 364 deaths a year, as well as 453 cases of chronic bronchitis, 1 552 cases of bronchitis in children aged six to 19 and 15 412 asthma symptom days in children. 

Matimba causes 262 deaths a year, Matla is responsible for 192 deaths a year and Lethabo 204 deaths per year.

Decision a victory for the people

Thandile Chinyavanhu, the climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, welcomed Khumalo’s decisions. “This decision is a victory for all the people who have stood up with us to demand clean air, by making it clear that Eskom is not only failing to comply with already weak air quality rules, but has made minimal efforts to try to do so.

“While Greenpeace Africa believes no postponements at all should have been given, the very limited postponements granted give a clear signal to Eskom that the utility is not above the law,” Chinyavanhu said.

Elana Greyling, the chairperson of Concerned Citizens of Lephalale, said the region’s communities living next to Medupi and Matimba have had to breathe polluted air.

“For several years, we have been opposing Eskom’s ongoing applications for exemptions. As the people that must breathe these extra pollutants, we feel that these exemptions nullify the law. Why would South Africa have a law limiting air pollution, when Eskom is just allowed to pollute as they please despite these laws?” Greyling said.

Eskom’s planned emission reductions

Eskom said it was engaging with the government on the way forward.

It said its applications contained detailed reasons for the requests, including that Eskom’s emission reduction plan includes investing in technology retrofits to reduce emissions, the progressive closure of older stations, and the move to a cleaner energy mix. 

It added that the cost of full compliance to the MES was estimated at more than R300-billion “and will not add any additional capacity to the national grid. If funding were available, and if it were possible to execute all the compliance projects in time to meet the requirements, these projects would add at least 10% to the existing electricity tariff”.

Eskom said it faced significant “practicality challenges” in implementing the required upgrades within the legal time frames without causing national electricity-capacity issues. 

“Eskom is committed to its mandate to supply stable electricity in an efficient and sustainable manner and enable economic growth. We aim to do this in an environmentally responsible manner that takes into consideration the need to reduce local air pollution and is in line with the country’s climate change commitments,” it said.

“We believe that the just energy transition strategy, as proposed by Eskom, is a constructive way of transitioning to a cleaner environment, while deploying limited funds to create additional generation capacity, rather than investing money in retrofitting expensive technology at ageing coal-fired plants with a limited remaining life.”

In October, a study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found that Eskom had become the world’s largest single emitter of dangerous SO2, with these emissions in 2019 exceeding those from the power sectors from each of the world’s three largest economies — China, the US and EU.

“Today, Eskom emits more SO2 than the entire China and US generation industry combined. It was not like that 30 years ago, but over the last 30 years, other countries have worked every year on the problem and invested money every year [into environmental compliance]. Eskom has taken the money and spent it on God knows what,” Yelland said.