No extended lease of life for aged coal-fired power stations

The commission cautioned that if coal-powered stations overstay their welcome, the country will have a high price to pay

The climate commission has recommended to President Cyril Ramaphosa that the lifespans of coal-fired power stations should not be extended if South Africa was to successfully implement its Just Transition. “The long-term recommendation is clear. South Africa should adopt a least-cost electricity pathway and seek
opportunities to close coal faster, predicated on achieving energy security,” maintained the commission.

This, according to the commission, means that there must be rapid and large-scale investment in renewables, storage, balancing power and peaking support. “In the short term, the least cost, no-regret option remains renewables, batteries, and balancing and peaking support, for example from gas. Not only are these the cheapest, secure options, but they are also the only options with build times short enough to make a meaningful impact on load shedding.”

With 80% of South Africa’s energy mix dominated by coal-powered stations, the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) clarified that what it was calling for was not a reckless abandoning of coal but a deliberate move to also connect renewable energy to the grid.

“As a matter of principle and justice, we cannot support the decommissioning of coal power stations plants into a vacuum. In a least-cost system, coal fired power stations are retired at the end of their economic life, but once over the immediate crisis, opportunities will arise to decommission as planned or faster,” explained the commission’s Executive Director, Dr Crispian Olver.

Dr Olver went on to warn that failure to roll out renewable energy in time will not only lengthen the country’s dependency on costly and unreliable coal powered stations, will also leave the country with insufficient alternative power when existing power stations are retired and ultimately decommissioned. The Commission also urged government to prioritise investment in the upgrade of current transmission and distribution grids, saying: “Modernising the electricity supply and getting the most out of renewable energy requires modernising the grid, which has lacked sustained investment and further exacerbated by the strain imposed by loadshedding.”

In its Electricity Planning Report that was published on its website, the PCC said during its consultations with stakeholders who were in favour of accelerating the transition from coal-fired power to renewables, one of the strongest arguments was the stakeholders’ concerns over air pollution and its impact on health.

“A recent report looking at the health impacts of Eskom’s coal plant fleet suggests that air pollution from coal-fired power plants, when considering Eskom’s current planned retirement schedule and emission control retrofits, would be responsible for 79 500 air pollution-related deaths from 2025 until their end-of-life,” stated the PCC.

The Commission reaffirmed its confidence in the country’s response to the ongoing energy crisis. Although it expressed concern over some mixed policy messages from different government departments, it said there were practical steps taken by government and its partners, which have resulted in meaningful progress.

Among others, such steps included the appointment of an Electricity Minister overseeing practical action from Operation Vulindlela, the National Energy Crisis Committee, the express support thrown behind the transition by the President through planning and public messaging, as well as the National Treasury’s budget allocations.

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