/ 20 April 2024

Concern over retrofitting coal-fired power stations to reduce pollution

Eskom's Hendrina & Arnot Coal Powered Stations As Soot Pollution At 31 Year High
Eskom is not complying with the National Environmental Management Air Quality Act, which presents the threat of a number of coal power plants having to shut down in the next year. Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Getty Images

Eskom is not complying with the National Environmental Management Air Quality Act, which presents the threat of a number of coal power plants having to shut down in the next year, according to a new report by the department of public enterprises. 

The Act requires all power stations to comply with air quality standards, as noted in Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan’s annual performance report released last week, in which he raised concerns about Eskom’s non-compliance with the national emissions standards.

The report said the failure to comply with the Act has resulted in Eskom requiring time-consuming and costly refurbishment with flue-gas desulphurisation technology and other equipment to ensure the plants become compliant.

Flue-gas desulphurisation technology removes sulphur dioxide from exhaust flue gases produced by coal-fired power plants.

Eskom’s power plants must adhere to international best practices for emissions control, including the use of advanced pollution control technologies, continuous monitoring and transparent reporting to minimise the effects on the environment, the state-owned enterprise’s sustainability report said.

Coal retrofits

To tackle these concerns, the department of mineral resources and energy’s draft 2023 Integrated Resource Plan, the energy blueprint, proposes that South Africa invests in coal retrofit technology. This involves installing pollution reduction technology that enhances existing coal-fired power plants to boost efficiency, lower emissions and comply with environmental regulations and energy policies.

With 10 coal-fired power plants reaching the end of their design life by 2030, more than 10 000 megawatts will be lost. The department said the retrofitting technology was the best-case scenario in expanding the plants’ life expectancy. 

This is in line with a report commissioned by the treasury, which recommends that Eskom’s old power plants be retrofitted to comply with acceptable pollution levels.

Titus Mathe, chief executive of the South African National Energy Development Institute, supported the retrofitting suggestion, adding that it would be instrumental in providing base load — the minimum energy needed — while the country expands the electricity grid to allow the use of renewable energy.

Gordhan’s report said there was an urgent need to ramp up investments in transmission infrastructure, building new substations and fortifying existing ones.

“By 2032, an estimated 14 200km of extra-high-voltage lines and 170 transformers will need to be added to the grid. However, achieving this ambitious infrastructure expansion by the designated deadline presents a formidable obstacle,” according to the report.

It warned that the government’s plan to extend the lifespan of the coal plant fleet could imperil investment prospects, given investors’ aversion to funding coal-related initiatives. 

In a parliamentary response last year, Gordhan said the public enterprises department estimated the cost of a full retrofit and refurbishment of coal-fired power stations to meet emissions standards at a staggering R400 billion. He added that the process would necessitate long periods of plants being shut down.

He added that retrofitting for life extension would require a minimum of two years, and that flue gas desulphurisation retrofits could take up to seven years to finalise.

Gordhan added that these efforts would diminish the energy supply, potentially worsening the existing supply shortfall that is causing load-shedding.

In their comments on the draft Integrated Resource Plan, which the Life After Coal campaign and the Black Girls Rising programme recently submitted to the mineral resources and energy department, the activists bemoaned the department’s plan for retrofitting coal-fired power stations.

They argued that carbon capture storage (CCS) technology “would not solve the emission problem because they are energy-intensive, requiring significant resources to power them, which can increase greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from coal mining and transport”. 

“It’s estimated that power plants might need to burn up to 43% more coal just to run CCS, which also reduces plant efficiency by at least 10%. Secondly, some common CCS methods can release harmful chemicals into the air, including formaldehyde, ammonia, and mercury,” they said.

The report said to avoid the financial implications, the country should take advantage of the large-scale renewable energy generation, particularly in solar photovoltaic and onshore wind projects because delays in these programmes pose potential risks to South Africa’s power supply.

“These disruptions add cost to industrial customers that need to complement grid power with self-generation assets, most of which are diesel-based while remaining exposed to retail tariffs that can be increased by local utilities,” the reports said.