Govt’s plan for coal power plants comes under fire

The inclusion of new coal-fired power stations in the government’s future electricity mix came under fire from the public, with claims that building more coal power stations was unconstitutional and likely to be challenged in court, MPs heard on Tuesday.

Attorney Nicole Loser from the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) told the Portfolio Committee on Energy on the first day of public hearings on the government’s draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that the IRP was legally obliged to fulfill the rights enshrined in the Constitution.

This included the right to an environment not harmful to health and to have an environment protected for current and future generations.

“The State has a duty to take reasonable legislative measures to give effect to that right,” Loser said.

However, the Department of Energy’s proposed addition of another 1 000MW of new coal power plants to the country’s future electricity plans, contained in the draft IRP, did not do so. It failed to consider the negative impacts of coal emissions on human health, on the natural environment, water resources and global climate change.

“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,” Loser said.

This was likely to be challenged in court.

The group was referring the two proposed coal power plants, Thabametsi and Khanyisa, to be built by the private sector as part of the Independent Power Producers’ (IPP) Programme.

Robyn Hugo from the CER said coal emissions had had a “devastating” effect on human health and was responsible for 2 200 deaths a year, for thousands of people becoming ill and a health bill of R34bn a year.

Hugo said the two proposed power stations used a technology that resulted in 60% more emissions than Medupi or Kusile. This would result in the government having to spend R28bn extra to keep South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions within its international commitments made under the UN’s Paris Accord.

At a time when the country should be making a transition away from coal, South Africa had 6 723MW of new coal coming online with the IPP power stations and the new units in Medupi and Kusile.

“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,” Loser said.

With the global average temperature having risen by 1°C since the Industrial Revolution, with devastating consequences in the increased frequency and severity of droughts, floods and other extreme weather, South Africa must do more, faster, to cut its greenhouse emissions, not increase them.

This was echoed by Vusumzi Ngqokomashe from the Land Rights Organisation of SA, who said there could be no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without a reduction in coal-powered electricity.

Already South Africa was among the highest per capita emitters of carbon dioxide.

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 suggest there we are planning to increase the coal capacity even further,” Ngqokomashe said.

Happy Khambule from Greenpeace the IRP needed to remove the constraints it placed on renewable energy in the face of global climate change.

“Climate change is no longer something happening in 2100, it is happening now and we are all feeling it,” Khambule said.

As climate change effects became stronger, so there would be a strain on water resources.

“As a global community we don’t need more coal. If we increase emissions we increase the impact on ordinary South Africans. One way is by water. Coal takes up a lot of water and contributes to climate change. We should not use it anymore.”

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