Coal mine

Coal mining / File Photo

Government’s confusing coal power plans may hit Constitutional snag

South Africa should be investing more time and money into renewable energy as global trends shift awkwardly away from ‘dirty’ energy sources like coal.

Coal mine

Coal mining / File Photo

The government of South Africa is planning to introduce more coal-fired power plants into the energy grid but it is facing some stiff opposition.

South Africa should be investing more time and money into renewable energy as global trends shift awkwardly away from ‘dirty’ energy sources such as coal and even nuclear. However, coal has proven to be South Africa’s biggest blessing and curse within the context of power production and export potential.

South Africa troubled by its reliance on coal power

While coal accounts for 77% of the country’s electrical output and is regarded as a cheap resource easily available to use, the country’s reliance on the fossil fuel has made South Africa one of highest per capita emitters of carbon dioxide. This does not sit well with the international community.

But local environmental agencies are also speaking out against the government’s crazy coal-fired power plans, especially since the country’s climate and geography provide the perfect breeding ground for clean sources of renewable energy in the form of solar, wind and water generators.

A recent report by Fin24 focused on the government’s controversial Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) and the backlash received by members of parliament complicit in the construction, and costly upkeep, of antiquated coal-fired plants.

Environmentalists fight back against government’s coal power plans

The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) is an organisation dedicated to the eventual complete removal of dirty energy from the power grid. Representing the organisation before the Portfolio Committee on Energy, Attorney Nicole Loser argued that the Department of Energy’s proposed addition of another 1 000MW of new coal power plants was a slap in the face to the country’s health, natural environment and Constitutional rights.

Loser highlighted the fact that the country’s coal plans were in contravention of global efforts aimed at halting the effects of global warming as recommended by Paris Agreement on climate change, stating:

“An IRP that calls for unnecessary and expensive new coal-fired power, at a time when we need to be urgently moving away from harmful coal, is simply not a reasonable measure to protect our right to a healthy environment as the Constitution requires.”

The human cost of coal power

Loser pointed to two new coal power plants, Thabametsi and Khanyisa, which are due to be constructed by the private sector as part of the Independent Power Producers’ (IPP) Programme. Robyn Hugo from the CER argued that the construction of new coal-fired power plants was wholly irresponsible, considering dirty energy’s “devastating” effect on human health, which was responsible for 2 200 deaths a year.

Hugo also noted that thousands of people becoming ill from coal-related operations resulted in a health bill of R34 billion a year. He also said that the implementation of Thabametsi and Khanyisa would push up the country’s emission levels by 60%, which would result in R28 billion “fine” as prescribed by the Paris Agreement.

The shift towards renewable energy

Loser urged the government to move away from outdated coal-fired power plants and embrace the future of renewable energy, saying:

“We need to abandon any new coal and expedite the decommissioning of the aging coal fleet. Renewable energy has been cheaper than coal for some time, even without factoring in the external costs.”

Vusumzi Ngqokomashe, representing the Land Rights Organisation of South Africa, echoed Loser’s sentiments, saying:

“One would have expected South Africa to shift from coal to invest more in solar and wind energy to bring down emissions. But no. This IRP suggests there we are planning to increase the coal capacity even further.”

Happy Khambule, representing Greenpeace, also bemoaned the government’s lack of consideration for the environment. Khambule argued that government’s hell-bent approach to implementing more coal-fired power stations did not make sense within the global context, saying:

“Climate change is no longer something happening in 2100, it is happening now and we are all feeling it. As a global community we don’t need more coal. If we increase emissions we increase the impact on ordinary South Africans. We should not use it anymore.”

The Department of Energy’s proposed IRP is likely to be challenged in court.