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Eskom could need 20 years to meet new emissions rules

State-owned Eskom, mired in financial crisis and struggling to meet demand, is the top polluter in Africa’s most industrialised economy.

Lethabo power station. Picture: Abigail Javier/EWN

JOHANNESBURG - Installing all the technology needed to meet stricter emissions rules coming into force in April could take power utility Eskom two decades, its environmental manager told Reuters.

State-owned Eskom, mired in financial crisis and struggling to meet demand, is the top polluter in Africa’s most industrialised economy.

It applied last year for the stricter limits for particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide to be postponed, suspended or adjusted for some of its coal-fired power plants, arguing that compliance wasn’t practically feasible and would cost an exorbitant amount.

That has angered environmental activists, who blame Eskom and other big polluters such as Sasol for causing respiratory diseases.

Deidre Herbst, Eskom’s environmental manager, said in an interview that installing abatement technology like flue gas desulphurisation (FGD), low nitrogen oxide burners and fabric filter bags on all Eskom’s coal plants that won’t be decommissioned before 2030 was a huge undertaking.

“If you told us today that you have to roll out FGD on a plant, it would take us at least 10 years to get to the point where we would be retrofitting the first unit,” Herbst said.

“Being able to execute all of those power stations at the same time would be a significant challenge. You would have to stagger the different power stations and it would probably take at least a 20-year period to finish all of them.”

Eskom estimates the nominal cost of installing abatement technology at power stations that will still be operational after 2030 at R300 billion ($21 billion).

Herbst said she expected a response to Eskom’s postponement application in the middle of this year.

The government’s air quality officer has already granted postponements to 37 facilities, including two Sasol plants, environment ministry spokesman Albi Modise said. Eskom previously applied for and was granted postponements between 2014 and 2015.

If the authorities reject Eskom’s latest application and insist that all its coal plants comply with the new limits on time, the utility could have to take offline 10,000 megawatts, almost a quarter of its nominal capacity, Herbst added.

That could trigger another round of severe nationwide power cuts, energy experts say.

Timothy Lloyd, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), urged the government to dismiss Eskom’s postponement request, saying non-compliance with air quality standards seriously harms people’s health.

The CER has taken the government to court on behalf of two environmental justice organisations in an effort to reduce high levels of air pollution in an area where 12 of Eskom’s coal plants are located.