Dirty coal: Inside the battle over Eskom's coal power stations


Eskom's plans to decommission its old coal-powered fleet of stations is going to get dirty. Decommissioning them involves shutting them down forever – something Eskom cannot afford to do now. But the plants cannot live forever.

During a press conference this week to address Eskom's load shedding crisis, Eskom's chief operating officer Jan Oberholtzer said that there were 11 units that have been closed across three of Eskom's older plants, Hendrina, Grootvlei and Komati.

On the sidelines of the press conference, Eskom's demand management senior general manager Andrew Etzinger confirmed that Eskom was not planning to decommission any plants at this stage. He said that Eskom was reviewing the business case for reopening one of the 11 units, as well as the case for keeping online a twelfth unit that was due to be shut down in May.

READ: Eskom starts shutting down old coal power plants

Eskom isn't anticipating massive job shedding all in one go, as the process is happening incrementally, and for now, workers at the affected stations are still at work. Workers are being encouraged to apply for jobs at other stations, however. While Eskom is not denying that this process is underway, it is not making a song and dance of it, either.

The power utility is in the midst of a crisis, having had to load shed at stage 4 for several days over the last week and a half. At the press conference, Eskom's leaders could give no assurances that load shedding would end any time soon.

Eskom's board chairperson Jabu Mabuza said this week that it was considering stopping construction at its new power stations, Medupi and Kusile, which are years overdue and millions over budget, to save costs. Units in operation at these plants have been tripping regularly.

At its older stations, seven units were down last week because of boiler tube leaks.

On average, half of its coal-powered fleet is over 37 years old. Units at these plants have been "falling over", Mabuza said, owing to the slashing of maintenance spend on them in the last several years.

But even if the situation at these older stations were not as dire, their age, combined with Eskom's plans to eventually wean the economy off of coal as part of its moves towards using cleaner energy sources, means they will have to close.

Until now, there has been little clarity on how this process will happen. It has filtered down to people living and working at these stations, and Eskom is facing protest action come election time if it does not address the situation.

READ: South Africa must end its coal habit. But it’s at odds about when and how

There have been calls from activists and unions for Eskom to come clean about its decommissioning plans, and for it to have proper social and labour plans in place. The draft 2018 Integrated Resource Plan makes it clear that Eskom has not calculated any of the social costs of turning off its coal-powered fleet.

And its decommissioning schedule does not appear to line up with what it is saying in public, and what workers on the ground know.


"We are waiting for this town to die," says a shop owner at Pullens Hope, home to Eskom's Hendrina power station.

The road towards the station is paved with good intentions. The plant at the end of it, and the Optimum mine adjacent to it, were supposed to provide work here and cheap power to South Africa.

All that is changing.

Bobby Peek, director of environmental justice non-profit groundWork, looks around grimly and announces, "Welcome to your first 'transition' town. This place is f***ed in a year."

The organisation has been engaging with communities affected by coal plant closures to agitate for proper plans to be put in place so that these places do not collapse when the plants are switched off. 

(Bobby Peek from groundWork has been campaigning for a "just transition" from coal to renewables. Pic: News24 archives)

It is this transition from coal to renewables, and calls for the transition to be "just", that a group of activists and researchers are in Mpumalanga to observe.

There is a firm belief among some workers that the life of the station and the mine can be extended if Eskom wants to do it. They say there will be protests come election time if the plant closures are still on the cards.

Peek tells the group that it is no longer a question of if, but when, the plants will close. He says they must start organising to make sure there is a clear plan in place that takes them into account when that day arrives.

It is apparent from the looks on their faces that this reality has not yet hit home.

The old conveyor belt that used to supply coal to Hendrina is idle. The equipment is eerily turning red with rust among the overgrown yellow grass. Meanwhile, some workers at the Hendrina power plant have been told that Eskom will start decommissioning it in 2025. Things look bleak.

It's the beginning of March, and the mine is still under business rescue, although it will resume operations before the month is over.

But for now, "No jobs," says the sign at the gate.

This town is a victim of two forces: corruption on the one hand, and South Africa's slow transition away from coal on the other. Not only are the units at Hendrina closing, and the plant will inevitably close altogether, but Pullens Hope is also state capture ground zero. This is where the Guptas took ownership of Optimum under controversial circumstances, and allegedly supplied Hendrina with such poor quality coal that it damaged the power station's boilers, according to a former employee at the mine.

It's just after midday, and a shop steward stumbles by, slightly drunk. Hardly anyone is at work.

A just transition

This "just transition" is a buzz word used by everyone who talks about coal, including Eskom's board chair Jabu Mabuza who addressed the media on the load shedding crisis this week. But whether South Africa's transition will be "just" is an open question.

In its report, Coal Kills, groundWork says: "A just transition must be for everyone, but we believe it starts on the coal fields. Workers and local communities carried the costs of the creation of the coal-based economy. They should not have to carry the cost of the transition away from coal. A just transition must be a public initiative driven by communities and workers and supported by government."

The World Bank agrees. In a 2018 report, it says that a "just transition" means early engagement with affected communities, with strong social assistance programmes and government taking the lead in doing this.

Ageing fleet

Driving through Mpumalanga, where most of Eskom's coal powered fleet is based, is like going on a power station-spotting safari. Upturned earth from coal mines and the huge cooling towers are almost as common as game in these parts. Even bigger grey ash dumps from the stations themselves appear like giant raised rugby fields, as the road curves.

These towers are disappearing in countries like Germany, which will shut down all of its 84 coal powered stations by 2038.

Two of Eskom's coal-powered fleet are older than 50 years old – that's a decade or two more than the average shelf life of a plant. A further three are fast approaching their half century, and others are not far behind.

They are simply too old, too unreliable, and too expensive to maintain. And they are environmentally disastrous.

South Africa's energy mix plan envisages a healthy role to be played by renewables, but the bulk of our electricity will still come from coal for some time.

READ: Eskom is not closing its own coal plants for IPPs, says Radebe

Over time, the plants will be decommissioned, but Eskom isn't going to do that now. Some experts would argue that this approach is reasonable because Eskom does not have the money to start decommissioning plants.

But a report by Meridian Economics in November 2017 calculated that Eskom could save R15bn – R17bn by decommissioning Grootvlei, Hendrina and Komati and not completing units 5 and 6 at Kusile, without affecting supply.

"Renewable energy resources now provide the cheapest source of energy on a new build basis, and will soon be cheaper than running many existing coal stations," the report says.

But the social and labour costs of closing these stations will be high. Workers will have to be given the opportunity to be reskilled and relocated. There will be claims for compensation.

Eskom will undoubtedly face massive push back from unions. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) said eight to 10 plants have been targeted for decommissioning – something that might be true on paper but is not on the cards for now.

It has the right information about which units are currently closed, however.

Numsa says Eskom is lying when it says that the plants have reached the end of their lives, and says efforts to replace the energy lost from these stations with energy produced by independent power producers (IPP)s is a plot to privatise the country's energy sector.

The National Union of Mineworkers' (NUM) national energy coordinator, Paris Mashego, told News24 this week that there are no plans in place for workers who will be affected by the decommissioning process, except that they are encouraged to apply to work at other stations.

READ: IPPs did not cause job losses in coal sector - Radebe

He said the unions were given a decommissioning plan of sorts by Eskom in mid-2018, but that it is no longer relevant.

By delaying decommissioning the older plants, is Eskom simply kicking this ball further and further down the road?

Very few would disagree with Numsa's concerns that closing the plants will turn their surrounding areas into ghost towns. In Pullens Hope, people worry that no one will buy their homes should they have to relocate, because there will be nothing left in the town worth moving there for.

In Germany, a researcher says, workers who survived the transition away from coal were able to secure gains from government early – options of early retirement, compensation and options to reskill. In South Africa, this conversation has barely begun.

READ: Dirty coal: Confusion over Eskom's plans for its coal-powered fleet

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