Eskom’s ageing coal plants put thousands of lives at risk

An air-quality research agency said that delays to the planned closures of coal-fired power plants proposed by South Africa’s energy department could result in thousands of deaths from air pollution and lead to billions of dollars of health-related costs. 

The projection about the health impacts of the delays, which the energy department says are necessary to guarantee the country’s energy security, adds to criticism of South Africa’s draft blueprint for power supply through 2050. 

Comparing proposals in the plan to the closure schedule put forward by state-owned power utility Eskom, the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air projected that the delays will cause ailments with a total cost of R724 billion.

It also forecasts that if implemented, the delays could result in the deaths of between 20,000 and 50,000 people.

“Given that the delayed retirement scenario leaves very substantial coal-fired capacity in place in 2050, there are going to be further health impacts beyond that year,” CREA said in comments emailed to Bloomberg. 

The potential delays may also heighten tensions over a $9.3 billion climate-finance pact South Africa sealed with some of the world’s richest nations on condition it began closing down its coal-fired power plants.

The IRP 2023 potentially sees an extra 14,600 MW of coal-fired power running in 2045 and 8,225 megawatts in 2050.

Eskom currently operates 14 coal-fired plants with about 40,000 megawatts of capacity and — under its own plan — envisages having less than 10,000 megawatts by 2050.

The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and Eskom didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Pollution from coal-fired power plants comes in the form of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other toxins. Those cause respiratory disease and a range of other ailments, including heart attacks and strokes.

According to CREA, the impact of the delayed closures of all the plants due to retire after 2035, as well as the Tutuka facility, would be, using the mid-point of forecast ranges:

  • 32,700 deaths
  • 330 deaths of children under five
  • 100,000 asthma emergency-room visits
  • 39,000 preterm births
  • 28 million days of work absence
  • 40,000 years of living with a disability

Delaying the closure of Lethabo, a power plant south of Johannesburg, would cause more than 10,000 deaths alone, CREA says. Lethabo lies in an area known as the Vaal Triangle, one of the most polluted places on earth. 

CREA, founded in 2019, is funded through philanthropic grants and payments for commissioned research. Its staff have worked with the United Nations, European Union, Greenpeace and the World Resources Institute.

The South African energy plan – currently open for public comment – has also been assailed for its lack of ambition when it comes to renewable energy and for not providing a path to ending the current outages that have crippled growth in Africa’s most industrialized economy.


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