Empty promises of clean coal in South Africa

The promises of new coal-fired power generation capacity in South Africa (post-Medupi and Kusile), and in particular, the promise of ‘clean coal’ technologies, has long been in the country’s planning pipeline but has been short of a reality check as to the actual potential for delivery.

In terms of South Africa’s previous Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity, IRP 2010 – 2030, a further 6250 MW of new coal-fired power plant was planned for construction by 2030, in addition to Eskom’s 4800 MW Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations that were still under construction at the time.

In 2014, as part of this plan, the IPP Office of the then Department of Energy commenced a procurement process for 2500 MW of coal-fired electricity from independent power producers (IPPs) in the first rounds of the so-called Coal Baseload IPP Procurement Programme.

Two preferred consortiums were finally announced in 2016 as the outcome of the first bid window – one being the Thabametsi project in the coal-rich Waterberg area of Limpopo province, and the other the Khanyisa project near eMalahleni in Mpumalanga province.

The Thabametsi coal-fired power station, was to be sited outside the town of Lephalale, and would have been largely owned by Marubeni of Japan and South Korean power utility, Kepco. The first phase of the project would have a capacity of 557 MW, with the ultimate intended capacity being 1200 MW.

The 306 MW Khanyisa coal-fired power station would have used discard coal from the Kleinkopje thermal coal colliery previously owned by Anglo American, and would have largely been owned by Saudi Arabian power company, ACWA.

Both the Thabametsi and Khanyisa power plants were to be designed around circulating fluidised bed (CFB) boiler technology operating at sub-critical pressure and temperature, giving efficiencies of about 32%.

However, despite having been awarded preferred bidder status in 2016, neither the Thabametsi nor the Khanyisa coal-fired power projects could achieve financial closure by 2021. Both projects were ultimately abandoned as commercial banks withdrew their funding amidst multiple legal challenges in respect of climate change, water licence, air pollution and environmental concerns.

It is, therefore quite remarkable that South Africa’s latest Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity, IRP 2019, still plans for 1500 MW of new coal-fired power generation capacity by 2030, with the first 750 MW scheduled to come onto the grid in 2023 and the second 750 MW scheduled for 2027.

It is virtually inconceivable that financial institutions would fund any such new coal-fired generation capacity in South Africa. But even if this were possible, it is patently impossible for 750 MW of new coal-fired generation capacity to be constructed for delivery of electricity into the grid by 2023.

However, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) seem oblivious to these “challenges”.

Gwede Header
Gwede Mantashe

DMRE Minister Gwede Mantashe has already issued a Section 34 determination under the Electricity Regulation Act for the 1500 MW of new coal-fired power generation capacity by 2030 detailed in IRP 2019. He has further indicated that the IPP Office will be issuing a request for proposals before the end of 2021 for the first 750 MW tranche through a new bid window of the Coal Baseload IPP Procurement Programme.

While little detail is provided as to the specifics of the technologies to be used for the 1500 MW of new coal-fired power generation capacity, preference is expressed in IRP 2019 for high-efficiency, low-emission (HELE) technologies. These would include underground coal gasification, integrated gasification combined cycle, carbon capture utilisation and storage, ultra-supercritical, super-critical and similar technologies.

IRP 2019 goes on to claim that the earlier Coal Baseload IPP Procurement programme has shown that there is a business case for modular and smaller coal-fired power plants (300 MW and 600 MW) while ignoring the fact that both the Thabametsi and Khanyisa projects have been abandoned.

In the meantime, a new report by internationally renowned coal power plant expert Dr Ranajit (Ron) Sahu confirms that the proposed 1500 MW of new coal-fired power generation capacity will cause significant air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, even if the cleanest technology currently available is used.

Dr Sahu, an engineer with over 30 years of experience in power plant design, has assessed the potential air emissions of the most likely types of HELE technology that could be used as part of a report commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER ) for groundWork, the Vukani Environmental Movement in Action, and the African Climate Alliance.

Dr Sahu has found that even in the best-case scenario, in which the cleanest available technology is used, large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions are unavoidable.

In particular, Dr Sahu considered two likely technologies that could be used: pulverized coal units and circulating fluidised bed technology. He found that pulverised coal units – even when operating at ultra-supercritical efficiency – will not be able to capture their emitted carbon dioxide due to extremely high costs.

Ron Sahu
Ron Sahu

In the case of circulating fluidised bed technology, which is considered preferable by the IRP due to its ability to handle low quality coal, Dr Sahu found that this technology emits from two to ten times more nitrous oxide than pulverised coal technologies. Nitrous oxide is a potent, long-lasting greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 300 times that of carbon dioxide.

Dr Sahu further concluded that none of the so-called ‘clean coal’ technologies could meet the requirements in IRP 2019 of being proven in service, economically viable and deliverable in the timeframes required by 2030.

“I want to stress that contrary to implications in IRP 2019 and the ministerial determination, there is simply no such thing as ‘clean coal’, regardless of whether HELE technologies are used to minimise air emissions from coal (or gas derived from coal),” says Dr Sahu.

The report is the latest piece of research that supports the view that new coal generation in South Africa will be unnecessary, costly and highly detrimental to the environment. It follows previous investigations into the coal cycle (mining, production, supply, and disposal) that prove that ‘clean coal’ is currently an impossibility.

“New coal generation flies in the face of the South African government’s obligation under international and South African law, including the South African Constitution, to take all reasonable measures to protect its people from the impacts of climate change”.

It is clear that not only is it impossible to substantially and sufficiently mitigate the harmful effects of burning coal and the associated high greenhouse gas emissions, but also that the more efficient a coal plant, the more expensive it is.

This makes coal-fired power even more uncompetitive with cleaner alternatives and begs the question: Why pay more for so-called ‘clean coal’ technologies when there are cleaner and cheaper alternatives that create more jobs, use less water and have much lower greenhouse gas emissions?

It would certainly appear from the report by Dr Sahu that the coal mining, coal transporting and coal-burning industries in South Africa are being fed empty promises of new, clean coal-fired power generation that are unlikely to ever materialise. Energy sector wags suggest that these empty promises may simply be intended to keep noisy coal-sector stakeholder groups quiet in misguided, optimistic hope.

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Empty promises of clean coal in South Africa