The choice is pollution or higher electricity prices: Eskom

Eskom, the world’s biggest emitter of the pollutant sulphur dioxide, said retrofitting about half of its coal-fired plants with pollution-cutting equipment would cost more than R300-billion and boost electricity costs.

The state-owned utility said it has applied for an exemption from complying with national emission limits for its power plants that are scheduled to close by 2030 and asked for a higher limit for six of its stations that will operate beyond 2030. Of its two newest plants, so-called flue-gas desulphurisation equipment has been installed at Kusile and will be retrofitted at Medupi.

“Eskom’s power stations with the exception of Medupi and Kusile were built at a time where there was no legal requirement for the installation of sulphur dioxide-reduction technologies,” the company said.

Eskom was this week named by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, or CREA, as the world’s biggest producer of the pollutant linked to ailments ranging from asthma to heart attacks. While South Africa cut the permissible amount of emission of sulphur dioxide to 1 000mg per normal cubic metre from 3 500mg last year, that limit is a multiple of that enforced in other major coal producers such as India and China.

“The implementation of flue-gas desulphurisation at the stations operating post-2030 should be considered in terms of return on investment and balancing the positive and negative impacts on the environment and communities exposed to pollution,” Eskom said.

If the technology, the only one currently available to reduce emission of the pollutant to current emission limits, is retrofitted to the six plants that will operate post 2030 it will boost annual costs by R5.9-billion, necessitating a 7% to 10% rise in electricity prices, Eskom said. It will also increase the company’s water consumption by 59 million cubic metres a year and produce an additional 9.7 million tons of waste, it said.

Slashed emissions

Still, other major emitters of sulphur dioxide — China, India, the US and the European Union — have slashed emissions by closing coal-fired plants in recent years or fitting them with the equipment.

While Eskom produced 1 600 kilotons of the pollutant in 2019, all of the power plants in China now produce just 780kt a year, down from 13 000kt in 2006.

Eskom has disputed a study that ties its emissions to more than 2 000 deaths a year, though it said in 2019 that its pollution kills 320 people annually.

The utility is more than R400-billion in debt.  — (c) 2021 Bloomberg LP