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Solar and wind power battle with coal in South Africa

 
Coal-fired Power Plant in South Africa

Steam billows from Kempton Park Power Station in Johannesburg. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Solar and wind power battle with coal in South Africa” was written by Adam Welz for Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12th December 2013 16.52 UTC

Africa is often portrayed as a victim of climate change, a continent that emits little carbon yet stands to suffer the effects of the developed world’s pollution. This view only holds if one excludes South Africa, the continent’s richest country and the world’s sixth-largest coal exporter, seventh-largest coal producer, and thirteenth-largest CO2 emitter, with per-capita emissions twice the global average. 94% of the country’s electricity comes from coal, as does almost half its liquid transport fuel.

But South Africa is also blessed with abundant renewable energy resources, mainly in the form of plentiful wind and its famously bright sun. These were largely unharnessed for power generation until last year, when the government began inviting private investors to produce cleaner electricity for the national grid. Roughly $5.5 billion has since rushed into the country’s renewable energy sector, and dozens of wind farms and solar plants are now mushrooming across the landscape.

Despite the newfound interest in renewables, coal’s days in South Africa are far from over. The government plans to increase coal exports and the production of electricity from coal. Observers say this is because coal is seen as cheap, the industry has a long history of delivering reliable power, and influential people — including President Jacob Zuma’s son and some of his African National Congress (ANC) party’s funders — have financial interests in so-called “black gold.”

The state-owned rail utility is spending billions of dollars to upgrade coal export lines, and the state-owned electric utility, Eskom, is currently building the third- and fourth-largest coal-fired power plants in the world, 4,800-megawatt behemoths known as Medupi and Kusile. The president’s cabinet announced in August that it intends to follow them with another, possibly smaller plant provisionally named Coal 3.

Environmentalists are worried that the rail expansion and the construction of Coal 3 will lock South Africa into the unnecessary and harmful consumption and export of coal for decades to come. In addition to the climate implications, they fear for the region’s scarce water resources and agricultural land, which are already being polluted and torn up by mining companies on a massive scale.

The greens are not just up against coal, but against the whole of South Africa’s mining industry, which has shaped the country’s history more than any other force. First mined commercially 150 years ago, coal has been at the forefront of the exploitation of South Africa’s extraordinarily large and diverse mineral resources, including diamonds, gold, and platinum.

The coal industry grew significantly under the notorious apartheid regime, which came to power in 1948 and saw coal as the solution to the twin pressures of an energy-hungry post-World War II economy and international anti-apartheid sanctions. With no indigenous oil reserves, South Africa feared being cut off from imported crude, so the government invested heavily in coal-fired power plants and created a state-owned company, Sasol, to convert coal into liquid petroleum on an unprecedented scale.

Apartheid came to an end in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) to power. In 2007 South Africa hit an electricity supply wall. Power cuts plunged major cities into darkness and industries ground to a halt. Blaming the situation on a lack of generation capacity and an unreliable supply of coal to its existing power plants, Eskom began pulling mothballed plants into action and accelerated the commissioning of the mega-plants, Medupi and Kusile.

This has incensed environmentalists. While mining had been largely unconstrained by environmental laws throughout the apartheid era, the post-apartheid Constitution grants citizens the “right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing” and obligates the government to pursue “ecologically sustainable development.” Dirty coal, they say, should be phased out, not encouraged. Its costs in terms of climate destabilization, water pollution, and lost agricultural land are becoming too high, environmentalists contend.

Coal 3, the proposed new plant, is a particularly bad idea, they say. It “doesn’t make sense economically or environmentally,” says Saliem Fakir of WWF-South Africa. “It only makes sense when you look at it in terms of vested interests and the politics of the whole southern African region.”

Coal 3 is likely to be built in the Waterberg coalfield that underlies a remote part Limpopo Province in northern South Africa, as well as part of neighboring Botswana. Although the Waterberg is one of southern Africa’s largest known coal deposits, it has remained underexploited because its complex geology and lack of water and rail lines has made it less attractive to private investors than “easier” coalfields farther south.

The Coal 3 plant would change this by guaranteeing local markets for more Waterberg mines, says Fakir. In addition, associated heavy-haul rail lines will allow access to lucrative export markets, not just for the Waterberg mines but for new mines in adjacent Botswana, too. Fakir points out that supporters of South Africa’s ruling party hold coal rights in the region, and that landlocked Botswana’s government has long sought a route to the sea for its abundant but almost completely unexploited coal resources.

 

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