Picture: 123RF/FOTORINCE
Picture: 123RF/FOTORINCE

SA  need not turn its back on coal power if it makes use of new technologies that reduce toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants — and could even extend the life of Eskom’s fleet.

Globally, there is growing negative sentiment toward coal-fired power in favour of cleaner technologies. In the government’s draft integrated resource plan, an energy blueprint, it is envisaged that SA will reduce coal’s role in the energy mix to 46% by 2030 in favour of more green power and gas.

But George Njenga, regional executive, for GE Steam Power for Sub-Saharan Africa, said coal remains the best way to meet SA’s base-load power need, if it cleaned up its act.

GE is a leading supplier of cutting-edge, clean-coal technologies globally, known as super-critical and ultra-super-critical, which burns coal more efficiently and so lowers emissions.

Speaking at a Fossil Fuel Foundation conference on Tuesday, Njenga said there was a “compelling case” to retrofit and upgrade power stations. SA’s fleet has an efficiency rate of 32%, but plants fitted with the latest clean-coal technologies have efficiency rates as high as 47%, Njenga said. Localised pollution, such as fumes, dust and other particles, could also be almost entirely removed with new technologies. Upgrades could also extend a plant’s life by 20 years, he said.

The draft IRP has ignited strong debate between proponents of competing power-generation technologies. Wind and solar power  have made significant inroads as technology costs continue to drop. But base-load, a continuous power supply, is still needed.

The IRP proposes gas be introduced to supply base-load, but Njenga said gas would have to be imported and would introduce both foreign exchange risk and geopolitical risk to SA’s power supply.

“The case for coal is that it is a natural resource with a value chain that creates a lot of jobs,” Njenga said. However, he said climate change concerns are a reality and clean-coal technologies are affordable options that need to be considered. 

There has been strong opposition to the inclusion of coal in the IRP and the Centre for Environmental Rights has argued that clean coal is a myth as there are no solutions to neutralise all, or even most, of the “dire environmental, health, and climate change impacts caused by coal”.

Njenga and other speakers at the conference on Tuesday noted that the coal industry is losing the battle for public opinion against competing technologies that are better organised. The onus is now on the industry to engage in a structured and constructive manner.