Johannesburg – Recent development plans show that South Africa has no intention of scaling down on its coal dependency to provide the country with energy.
Yet South Africa will chair a critical negotiating group this year at the climate summit in Paris and be part of UN talks to try to force nations to cap their fossil fuel usage.
The governments of more than 190 nations will gather in Paris to discuss a possible new global agreement on climate change, aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the threat of climate change. South Africa will head the G77 + China group that is pushing for a strong treaty at the talks.
Ferrial Adam, a climate change analyst at environmental group 350.org, said: “South Africa says one thing on the international arena but has a whole other domestic policy.”
She said that while the departments of environmental affairs and international relations and cooperation coordinated the international talks, the department of energy was responsible for determining what kind of energy South Africa would use.
“And the departments don’t talk to each other,” she said.
Adam said policymakers in South Africa were still stuck in the country’s old ways of doing business. And that meant always going back to coal, because it was perceived to be cheap and well understood.
“While renewables have been growing in South Africa, it is still a measly amount. It simply is not good enough,” she said.
Dr Agathe Maupin, a researcher at the SA Institute of International Affairs, said South Africa’s developmental plans – without additional coal power plants – were in line with international thinking on the climate agenda.
“Of course, South Africa is not going to comply overnight,” she said.
She added that the country’s renewable energy procurement programme was helping South Africa fulfil its international environmental commitments.
Coal is South Africa’s most important mining segment. The country’s electricity supply hinges on coal, which generates 85% of its electricity. Blessed with large coal resources, coal has traditionally been a huge driver of South Africa’s economy. The coal industry has also been hugely profitable for new black-empowered mining companies.
For the moment, South Africa’s emissions have remained steady, in large part due to the Eskom crisis, the recession and a sluggish economy.
Although emission-control legislation is in place in South Africa, fitting the necessary filters is costing cash-strapped Eskom a pretty penny.
The utility has applied for postponements of the application of new minimum emissions standards for all of its power plants, except Kusile. This is because it would cost Eskom more than R200 billion over the next 10 years to comply fully “with an attendant minimal impact on ambient air quality”, Eskom said.
Medupi’s World Bank loan stipulates that the power station must be fitted with flue gas desulphurisation, a mechanism to control emissions. But until a water-augmentation scheme comes online, there is not enough water available in the water-stressed Waterberg in Limpopo for the filter. The mechanism will treble Medupi’s water usage and cannot be installed on all six of the plant’s units until additional water is available.
And even though Medupi is carbon-capture-and-storage ready, the progress around it at this stage is nothing more than pie in the sky.
Juggernauts Medupi and Kusile will be two of the largest five coal-fired power stations in the world. And more are coming.
Another sibling is planned for Medupi in the Waterberg. Eskom’s Coal Three has President Jacob Zuma’s backing, but with the power utility’s financial woes, it has been put on the back burner.
The 4 800 megawatt coal-fired station is scheduled to be built once Medupi and Kusile are completed.
A further 2 500MW of base-load generating capacity would be sourced through independent power producers.
In December, the energy department called for proposals for the supply of 1 600MW of generating capacity by 2021.
Several mining companies are planning to build coal-fired plants in South Africa, some of which want to use their mines to feed the new power stations.
Dominique Doyle, energy policy officer at Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, said: “There simply isn’t any more room in South Africa’s carbon budget for more coal-fired power stations.
“More coal will make South Africa the laughing stock of the international negotiations, because it will show the world that South Africa cannot keep its promises.”
At the climate talks in 2009 in Copenhagen, South Africa offered what many saw as an ambitious pledge to lower its carbon emissions.
The promise sees a 34% reduction in emissions relative to the country’s “business as usual” trajectory by 2020, and 42% by 2025.
But energy analysts say that if South Africa implemented the Copenhagen pledge, there would be no room for new coal power stations in South Africa after Medupi and Kusile.
But the 2009 pledge was dependent on funding and technical support from the developed world, and analysts believe this is where South Africa’s loophole lies. So far, the developed world has offered no funding.