The return of two Kusile coal power station units has provided relief from Eskom load-shedding in South Africa but has raised concerns for the health of residents living in proximity to the power station.
Unveiling the Unseen Consequences of Kusile Return and Eskom Load-Shedding Relief
The Health and Environmental Costs
Bobby Peek, the executive director of Groundwork and Friends of the Earth South Africa, highlighted the health and environmental costs associated with the emissions workaround used at Kusile.
Estimates from the Centre for Research into Energy and Clean Air (CREA) in Finland suggest that this workaround could result in approximately 680 deaths and 3,000 asthma emergencies due to increased emissions.
Kusile Units 1, 2, and 3 were offline for nearly a year due to a flue-gas duct (FGD) collapse in October 2022. Their absence created a significant gap in Eskom’s generating capacity, leading to more severe load-shedding for much of 2023.
Eskom initially anticipated that the FGD repair would take several years. To address the situation, a temporary solution was devised that allowed the three units to operate using smaller stacks while long-term chimney structure repairs were conducted.
Emissions Exemption and Unit Return
The temporary solution, while enabling the return of Unit 3 to the grid on September 30, 2023, and Unit 1 on October 16, 2023, has resulted in increased polluting emissions from these units. Eskom secured an emissions exemption from the Department of Forestries, Fisheries, and Environmental Affairs to implement the workaround.
The return of these units, adding around 1,600MW of capacity to Eskom’s grid, has significantly improved the power system and reduced load-shedding. Unit 2 is scheduled for a return to service with the temporary stacks before the end of November 2023.
The Human and Economic Dilemma
While Eskom and the electricity minister highlighted the early return of these units, concerns have arisen regarding the adverse effects on residents in the surrounding area, including higher pollution levels.
The health impacts of Eskom’s coal power pollutants can lead to respiratory diseases, an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, and other health issues. Groundwork’s calculations suggest that Eskom’s pollution could cost South Africa $26 billion in health impacts.
A government-appointed panel estimates that Eskom’s coal station pollution will result in 79,500 deaths from 2025, even if it follows the current schedule for shutting down its coal fleet.
Full compliance with emission standards would save 34,400 lives but require the decommissioning of 16,000MW of capacity, leading to significantly higher levels of load-shedding.
Economic Impact and Renewable Energy Solutions
Energy expert Chris Yelland estimated that stage 1 load-shedding costs the country about R20 billion per month, with costs doubling for each stage.
The availability of the three Kusile units running on temporary stacks could save South Africa’s economy R640 billion, assuming they provide at least 2,000MW of capacity from December 2023 to March 2025.
Balancing these economic considerations with health concerns presents a complex dilemma. Bobby Peek advocates for a “social ownership” approach to energy, where every household, regardless of economic status, has solar panels on their roofs to feed energy into the grid.
This transition to renewable energy sources is seen as a solution to address coal-fired pollution and reduce load-shedding while promoting a sustainable energy economy in South Africa.