Eskom is facing a dilemma, with the power utility having to decide whether to cut emissions to meet government regulations at the expense of generation output or to improve the performance of its coal fleet and continue to breach emission standards.
An analysis of Eskom data from Reuters found that 4 of Eskom’s 15 coal-fired power stations are breaching government emissions regulations.
Eskom officials and Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa told Reuters they are aware of the violations as the utility has bucked a 40-year decline in emissions in the past 12 months.
“We’ve got a constrained system. It’s just that there’s not enough space for maintenance, and sometimes a trade-off is made,” Eskom’s senior environmental manager, Deidre Herbst, said.
With load-shedding’s severe impact on the economy, Eskom is having to run its coal plants harder and delay upgrades, Herbst said.
Of the four plants in breach of regulations — Matimba, Matla, Kendal, and Kriel — two were emitting more than double the permitted limit of particulate matter in February, the most recent month of available Eskom data showed.
Earlier this year, Eskom sought approval to release more sulphur dioxide, which is linked to asthma and heart attacks.
The move is part of an attempt by the company to reduce the level of temporary blackouts the nation is facing as a result of its inability to meet demand.
Eskom asked South Africa’s environmental affairs department to allow it to bypass the flue-gas desulfurisation (FGD) unit, which removes the toxic gas from emissions at three of the six units at Kusile.
National Treasury revealed earlier this month that emissions from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants have increased over the last year despite the utility’s R67 billion emission reduction plan.
“Eskom’s relative particulate emissions performance has deteriorated further to 1.01 kg/MWh sent out,” it said.
It is substantially worse than the target and a significant increase in emissions from June 2022, when Eskom sent out 0.40 kg/MWh.
“This is significantly worse than the performance recorded before implementing emission upgrades at stations like Duvha, Matla, Matimba and Lethabo,” the National Treasury said.
It added that by March 2023, 17 of Eskom’s units were operating in non-compliance with average monthly emission limits.
The National Treasury said Eskom’s inability to meet emissions targets threatens the continued operation of its non-compliant power stations.
Eskom calculates its relative particulate matter emission performance figure by dividing the total particulate matter (ash) emitted from the coal-fired stations by the total energy produced.
Emissions could kill thousands
In 2021, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) showed that Eskom became the world’s largest emitter of health-harming sulfur dioxide.
More recently, CREA said air pollution from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants risks killing 79,500 people from 2025 until they are due to be shut down.
“The deaths are attributed to increased risk of stroke, ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lower respiratory disease,” CREA said.
The study highlighted that many of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants breach South African emission standards.
The Centre for Environmental Rights said if Eskom is allowed to continue as is, emissions from the company’s fleet will cost thousands of lives.
Eskom, which the group previously named the world’s biggest sulphur dioxide emitter, runs 14 coal-fired plants, most of which are east of Johannesburg.
Eskom’s current plan is projected to see emissions reduce by approximately 70% by 2035 compared to 2021.
In addition to Eskom’s overarching emission reduction plan, the utility has developed station-specific recovery plans.
This includes emission improvement plans, which are being implemented and showing positive results regarding emission performance, Eskom said.