Andreas Späth

Let's kill King Coal

2013-09-06 10:24

Andreas Wilson-Späth

It's time we got rid of the old sociopath - he's done enough damage!

Alas, government and Eskom don't think so. Cabinet recently approved plans for a third mega coal-fired power plant, dubbed Coal 3, which is to be built once Medupi and Kusile, the two over-budget and behind-schedule plants currently under construction, have been completed.

But do we really need more dirty coal-generated electricity? And who will actually stand to benefit from Coal 3?

Let's try to break the situation down into a couple of bullet points:

- About 85% of our electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants and virtually our entire industrial base is built on “cheap” coal. We’ve got lots of it and we’ve been burning it with little or no regard for the very significant consequences for decades (the list of side-effects ain’t pretty: many large, ugly holes in the ground; mountains of fly ash waste; over 200 million tonnes of climate-changing CO2 spewed into the air every year; plenty of particulates, toxic mercury, arsenic, chromium and uranium to contaminate the air, soil and water; over 1.5 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide emitted annually; sickness and death from asthma and lung disease to kidney failure).

- Over 50% of this dirty coal energy is consumed by a small number of highly profitable industrial and mining corporations. Just the so-called Energy Intensive User Group, an association of 30 companies engaged for the most part in mining, mineral, metal and chemical processing, makes up for about 40%.

- Residential homes account for less than 20% of national electricity consumption and most of that goes to a minority of the richest households. Access to electricity remains a daily struggle for the poor. Some 20% of South Africans don’t have electricity at all and many, many more only have it intermittently, mostly due to financial constraints.

- A report submitted to the National Planning Commission by UCT’s Energy Research Centre in April suggests that the government’s 2010 Integrated Resource Plan, a national 20-year energy strategy, is based on outdated and invalid assumptions, and that the growth in the demand for electricity “has been much lower than forecast”. In fact, “it is still below 2007 levels”. The researchers argue that no new energy investments, coal or otherwise, are necessary in the next 15 to 25 years. Yet government remains committed to building more polluting power plants.

Clearly something’s not right here. Who’s pulling the strings? Who’s making our national energy decisions and in whose interest? Is it “we the people”, or is it those other “legal persons”, our friendly neighbours, the corporate citizens?

Given that there’s so little in it for the majority of us who remain energy poor, and given that our national energy policy is, in fact, harmful to our health, our environment and our future, how is it that billions of our collective tax money gets spent on it?

I think the situation affords us a sneak peek behind the tattered façade that passes for democracy, that ossified edifice which facilitates SA’s majority in continuing to vote itself into energy poverty. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but thinking of all of this makes me sick to the stomach.

It’s time to bury King Coal in an abandoned Witbank mine and keep him where he belongs: underground.

PS: a thank you to groundWork's Greenfly for the inspiration for this column.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
 
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