Business / Business News
When Eskom proclaimed in an enthusiastic statement on Monday that the Medupi coal-fired power plant project had finally reached commercial operation status, it failed to mention why it still failed to comply with minimum emission standards (MES) when it came to toxic air pollutants.
For NGOs groundWork and JustShare, Medupi’s ‘progress’ is no cause for celebration.
The power utility has a pending MES commitment dating back to 2010, when 192 civil society organisations across the globe called on the World Bank not to grant Medupi the loan it needed.
Poverty, sickness and load shedding remain
groundWork director Bobby Peek said Eskom coal-fired power stations are responsible for roughly 2 239 deaths each year, with associated health costs amounting to R30 billion.
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But still, poor people remain unable to access energy, let alone electricity that is affordable and clean.
“Instead, we got stuck with polluting coal-fired power stations [until] beyond 2050 which is poorly constructed and will probably need ongoing excessive maintenance.”
JustShare climate change engagement director Robyn Hugo explained Medupi’s ‘completion’ does not have much impact when it comes to alleviating load shedding.
“It’s more of a ‘paper milestone’. The plant’s energy availability factor is also way below what it should be in terms of its design specifications.”
South Africa’s weak emissions standards
Although the loan was granted, the World Bank did warn that the project would contribute to “energy poverty, environmental destruction”, and that repayments would be costly due to repeated currency crashes.
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Peek said part of the World Bank deal was for Eskom to build a concentrated solar power plant, which has not yet manifested.
Air pollution emission standards are weak in South Africa by global standards, even when compared to other developing nations, but the utility has repeatedly sought to apply for compliance postponements.
The country also does not comply regularly enough with atmospheric emission licenses.
Peek said Eskom would likely continue to seek “rolling postponements” every five years until all coal-fired power stations are decommissioned.
“In fact, it does not intend ever to comply with ‘new plant’ SO2 [sulphur dioxide] standards apart from at its two newest stations which are under construction.”
Emissions are just one part of a series of pollutants, with the potential to wreak havoc on the physical health of residents.
Technical standards left wanting
Hugo said a large amount of rectification work still needs to be done to address design and execution shortfalls. Only once technical solutions related to boiler design defects are completed will Medupi be able to reliably deliver power to the national grid, something Eskom did explain in their statement on Monday.
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She pointed out, however, that it was untrue that technical compliance to statutory, safety and legal requirements have been met, as per the power utility’s statement.
“Eskom has yet to retrofit flue gas desulphurisation equipment onto any of the six units of Medupi – this is a way to limit SO2 pollution… So it is not accurate to say that Medupi is now complete.
“The exorbitant public cost and extreme time overruns for this project are certainly not to be celebrated; especially bearing in mind that renewable power is much cheaper, cleaner and quicker to provide.”
South Africa has just eight years left to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% if the country stands a chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, Hugo added.
Eskom also risks having to decommission Medupi by 31 March 2030 if it continues to fail to comply with the 2020 MES by the end of March 2025.
Energy expert Ted Blom concurred in a Facebook post that Medupi was “far from finished”, with “defective” boilers only capable of generating half of their design capacity.
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He said his engineers told him the “cut and paste repair solution on the boilers will blow up in Eskom’s faces within five years”.
Boilers still have to have ‘scrubbers’ fitted, with Blom saying he was doubtful they would be operational before 2026 – further risking the possible decommissioning of the plant before the project is completed.
“Medupi is a monument not only to the extraordinary corruption of the Zuma era, but also to South Africa’s outdated and self-sabotaging energy policy,” Hugo said.