Kusile power station return raises health concerns: What Eskom is not telling South Africans

The return to service of two Kusile coal power station units in South Africa has eased the burden of load-shedding, providing relief for the nation’s economy. However, this comes at a steep cost for those living in proximity to the power station. The emissions workaround employed to expedite unit repairs is projected to lead to 680 deaths and 3,000 asthma emergencies. Despite the improvement in electricity supply, residents face increased pollution levels, leading to health risks and potential economic costs, emphasizing the urgent need for renewable energy solutions.

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The dark side of the Kusile comeback — What Eskom is not telling South Africans about its big load-shedding wins

By Hanno Labuschagne

While the recent reduction in load-shedding severity due to the return to service of two Kusile coal power station units is a welcome boost to the economy and daily lives of South Africa, it comes at a high cost to those living close to the power station.

The issue was recently highlighted by Groundwork and Friends of the Earth South Africa executive director Bobby Peek in an interview with eNCA.

Peek explained that estimates by the Finland-based Centre for Research into Energy and Clean Air (CREA) found that there would be roughly 680 deaths and 3,000 asthma emergencies due to the emissions workaround being used at Kusile.

Kusile Units 1, 2, and 3 were offline for nearly a year after a flue-gas duct (FGD) collapsed in October 2022.

Their absence from Eskom’s grid left a 2,400MW hole in the utility’s generating capacity, increasing the required level of load-shedding by roughly two and a half stages for much of 2023.

Kusile power station flue-gas ducts before collapse.

Eskom had initially anticipated the flue-gas duct repair would take multiple years.

It came up with a temporary solution that uses smaller stacks to allow the three units to run while it conducts long-term repairs on the chimney structure.

However, doing so increases the amount of polluting emissions from the units, which required Eskom to get an emissions exemption from the Department of Forestries, Fisheries, and Environmental Affairs.

With the workaround solution, Eskom returned Unit 3 to the grid on 30 September 2023 and Unit 1 on 16 October 2023.

Combined, these two units add around 1,600MW of capacity to Eskom’s grid, significantly improving the state of the system and reducing load-shedding.

Kusile’s Unit 2 is slated for a return to service with the temporary stacks before the end of November 2023.

In their announcements about progress at Kusile, Eskom and electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa have focused heavily on how it managed to bring these units back online earlier than anticipated.

The two big chimney-like structures in this image are Kusile Power Station’s flue-gas ducts. The three smaller chimneys on the left side of the photo are the temporary stacks constructed to run Units 1, 2, and 3 while the full FGD repair is being conducted.

Eskom and the minister have shown little sympathy for the plight of residents in the area surrounding Kusile — including those in the town of Emalahleni (formerly Witbank) — who are left to deal with higher pollution levels than usual.

“I think it’s unfair to put people’s health at risk because some people need energy,” Peek said. “People are going to die prematurely because of this reality. People are going to get sick.”

Eskom’s coal power pollutants can cause a wide range of health issues in humans — including respiratory diseases and an increased likelihood of heart attacks and strokes.

Peek said that his organisation’s calculations showed Eskom’s pollution could cost South Africa $26 billion (R490 million) in health impacts.

A study by a government-appointed panel from the CREA has estimated Eskom’s coal station pollution will kill 79,500 people from 2025, even if it shuts down its coal fleet according to the current schedule.

If Eskom fully complied with emission standards, it would save 34,400 lives. However, it would have to decommission 16,000MW of capacity.

This would result in disastrously high levels of load-shedding, much worse than previously experienced in the country.

For reference, 16,000MW of capacity is double the amount of electricity Eskom sheds under stage 8 load-shedding.

Cost to economy greater than health cost

Energy expert Chris Yelland has calculated that stage 1 load-shedding costs the country about R20 billion per month. The figure doubles with each increasing stage.

Based on that calculation, the availability of Eskom’s three Kusile units running on the temporary stacks — potentially until March 2025 — will save South Africa’s economy R640 billion.

That assumes they can provide at least 2,000MW of capacity from December 2023 to March 2025.

This also directly impacts human life, leaving Eskom and South Africa to deal with a version of the trolley problem. Down one path, you endanger thousands; down the other, millions.

Peek believes that “social ownership” of energy is the best way to eliminate coal-fired pollution in South Africa while also reducing load-shedding.

“Every household in South Africa — rich or poor — needs to have solar panels on their roofs feeding energy into the grid,” Peek said.

“The way for South Africa to deal with the present crisis around coal-fired power stations and the fact that they are out of compliance, they are closing, and jobs are going to be lost, is to focus on an economy that takes Eskom to renewable energy,” Peek said.

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This article was first published by MyBroadBand and is republished with permission

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