Eskom has no budgets or plans in place for the decommissioning of its older coal power plants, despite its own admission that these plants must eventually close, and international consensus over the potential effects of these closures.
This is according to a response to a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) request by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER).
The CER asked Eskom for its decommissioning plans and budgets for its older coal powered fleet – Hendrina, Grootvlei, Camden, Arnot, Komati and Kriel. In response, Eskom’s delegated information officer Eddie Laubscher wrote in April:
“Whilst Eskom has provided an indication of station shutdown and decommissioning dates in various forums, the final shut down and decommissioning dates of power stations and units within stations will be determined based on economic, technical and environmental criteria.
“No detailed shutdown or decommissioning plans have been formalised to date. Any such plans will be developed in compliance with the necessary regulatory requirements and the required stakeholder involvement... No specific budget allocation has been made for cash outflow associated with physical decommissioning to date.”
In the same response, Laubscher said that Eskom had budgeted R13.4bn for environmental restoration at all its power stations.
At a press conference in March this year, Eskom’s chief operating officer Jan Oberholtzer said that 11 units had been closed across three plants: Hendrina, Grootvlei and Komati.
Eskom’s demand management senior general manager Andrew Etzinger told News24 at the time that there was no formal decommissioning process on the cards, and that Eskom was reviewing the business cases for reopening one of the 11 units.
Eskom was also considering keeping open a 12th unit that was due to be shut down, he said.
Despite the disastrous environmental impact of the power stations, many are just too old to keep operating. At the same press conference, Eskom board chairperson Jabu Mabuza said the older stations’ units had been “falling over” because of their age, and because they have not been properly maintained. At the time, the country was experiencing Stage 4 load shedding.
Half of Eskom’s coal powered fleet is over 37 years old, on average.
Two of Eskom’s coal power stations are older than 50 years, and another three are approaching their half-century. Experts say power plants should not operate for more than 30 years.
Activists, researchers and unionists have long called for a “just transition” from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy.
In a 2018 report, the World Bank said this just transition must include early talks with affected communities and strong social assistance programmes. In many South African towns, the closure of coal powered stations, gradual or not, could be devastating. This is why the World Bank recommends that government must take the lead in ensuring that the transition is just.
The lack of clarity around the issue has caused a great deal of concern for workers at stations on the ground. As far back as 2017, Cosatu issued a statement condemning reports that the Eskom board was going to unilaterally close the five stations.
The National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa) previously said that eight to ten plants were going to be decommissioned. Neither of these scenarios are on the cards now, but it speaks to the confusion among those most affected by plant closures.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) previously told News24 that the only plans in place for workers affected by plant closures was that they were encouraged to apply for work at other plants. And a decommissioning plan that NUM said they received from Eskom some time in 2018 now seems irrelevant.
One of the many decommissioning plans circulating shows that Eskom intends, or intended, to start shutting down and decommissioning units at the five older plants within the next two years. While the plan provided timelines, Eskom's latest response indicates that it, too, may no longer be relevant.