Guest Column

Cancelling Kusile is the only logical option

2019-02-20 12:29
Eskom CEO Phakamani Hadebe addresses journalists during a press conference at the utility's Sunninghill offices on November 16, 2018. (Photo by Gallo Images / Business Day / Alaister Russell)

Eskom CEO Phakamani Hadebe addresses journalists during a press conference at the utility's Sunninghill offices on November 16, 2018. (Photo by Gallo Images / Business Day / Alaister Russell)

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Kusile will further lock South Africa into a polluting coal-based electricity supply, while crowding out investments in renewable energy and perpetuating a cycle of pollution, writes Melita Steele.

The science is clear: burning coal is driving climate change and people across the African continent are on the front lines because of existing vulnerabilities. 

Almost a year ago, the threat of Day Zero gave South Africans a taste of the chaos climate change has the potential to create: Capetonians are still using about 40 million litres less a day than they are allowed to for fear of triggering another water crisis. 

Droughts, floods, rising sea levels, heatwaves, changing agricultural zones and melting polar ice caps are all symptoms of climate change and the omens of a potentially apocalyptic future. The question, then, is also clear: why have we not yet taken serious action against climate change? 

READ: Friday Briefing - The dismantling of Eskom

President Cyril Ramaphosa made detailed reference to the threats posed by climate change in his response to the debate on the State of the Nation Address last week, hopefully signalling a change in attitude towards what is one of the defining issues of our time. 

However, while we hold on to the audacity of hope that the South African government will match rhetoric on climate change with action, there is always the potential that this is, once more, lip service to an issue that governments are neither taking seriously nor responding to quickly enough.

If we were taking climate change seriously, the country would be taking decisive steps to reduce South Africa's carbon footprint. Instead, Eskom is currently continuing construction of two of the biggest coal-fired power stations in the world: Medupi and Kusile.

Kusile has been under construction in Mpumalanga since August 2008 and, if completed, would burn approximately 17 million tonnes of coal per year. Kusile would single-handedly increase South Africa's contribution to climate change by 10%, and research estimates that it will cost South Africans R1.449bn to R3.279bn in hidden costs over its lifespan. 

Kusile, with a proposed lifespan upwards of 50 years, would further lock South Africa into a polluting coal-based electricity supply, while crowding out investments in renewable energy and perpetuating a cycle of pollution, destruction and premature death.

Kusile is an isiNdebele and siSwati word meaning "the dawn has come" or "good morning". Instead, the coal megalith is hurling us back into the dark times of load shedding and spiralling electricity prices. 

Greenpeace Africa has been campaigning for the cancellation of Kusile for nearly a decade, arguing that the risks of construction far outweigh any potential benefits. Now, after bankrupting itself to construct these two coal behemoths, Eskom itself has admitted that neither Medupi nor Kusile are contributing effectively to the grid. The price of electricity is soaring to help pay for the construction, Mpumalanga has some of the worst pollution levels in the world, and Eskom's debt risk is so severe that it is enough to sink the economy. 

Even if the coal-fired power stations had been constructed effectively, they would still be stranded assets because of the risks of climate change. We cannot continue as if it is business as usual. 

No responsibility

Grinding salt into the wound is the fact that no-one is willing to take responsibility for Eskom's current state: former Eskom chief executive Brian Molefe insists that he conveniently does not know what went wrong. 

Eskom officials have recently revealed that they prioritised the construction of Medupi and Kusile over maintenance of their existing fleet of coal-fired power stations. We are now paying the price through the unreliability of the remaining coal-fired power stations, combined with soaring pollution levels and thousands of premature deaths. 

Eskom's terrible investment decisions and inability to rein in corruption have put all of us at risk, so what reason do South Africans have to sympathise with the utility's current predicament?

Coal is simply incapable of powering the kind of future that we want for our children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. Instead, it is putting the future of life as we know it at risk. Eskom's continued belief that it will be bailed out by government is an insult to South Africans and it is a slight against the very people that both the government and Eskom are meant to be serving. 

If Medupi and Kusile are completed, they will use a combined 52,3 million cubic meters of water every year, using up massive amounts of scarce water while the threat of Day Zero and extreme droughts continues to loom. 

If the president and the current administration are serious about tackling climate change, then the only real option to safeguard our future while also avoiding a climate apocalypse is to cancel the last units of Kusile, and shift that money to investments in renewable energy instead. 

We don't need to finish Kusile; what we need is a clean, stable electricity supply. For that, we have some of the best renewable energy resources in the world which are capable of being deployed quickly. What we don't have is time. An urgent shift is needed, and one of the best places to start is cancelling Kusile.

- Melita Steele is senior climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace Africa.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    kusile power station  |  eskom  |  cyril rama­phosa  |  climate change
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