Eskom is now the world’s top sulphur dioxide emitter, says watchdog
The power utility needs to close some plants and upgrade others, says pollution research body CREA
Eskom has become the world’s biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide, a pollutant linked to ailments ranging from asthma to heart attacks, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).
Eskom produced 1,600 kilotonnes of the pollutant in 2019, the latest year for which comparable data is available, according to the report released on Tuesday by CREA, an air pollution research organisation. That was more than any company, and the total emissions of the power sector of any country with the exception of India.
While China, the US and the EU have slashed sulphur dioxide emissions in recent years by fitting pollution abatement equipment to power plants, Eskom has done so at only one of its 15 coal-fired facilities. Eskom has disputed a 2019 study that tied its emissions to more than 2,000 deaths a year, though it said its pollution killed 320 people annually.
“They need to comply with minimum emission standards to reduce the burden they place on public health,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA, in an interview. “The only viable way to do that is to phase out some of the plants that are in the worse condition in terms of reliability and upgrade the rest.”
Eskom did not respond to a request for comment.
The department of environment, forestry & fisheries said in a response to queries that it had developed legislation to manage emissions. “In case of non-compliances, the department has a duty to enforce the legislation.”
China has slashed its annual emissions to 780 kilotonnes from 13,000 kilotonnes in 2006, CREA said. Its biggest coal-fired power plant operator, Huaneng Power, emitted 26 kilotonnes of sulphur dioxide last year from a fleet of power stations with almost twice Eskom’s installed capacity of about 44,000MW, it said.
Eskom’s pollution is also high because of the high sulphur content of the coal it burns, Myllyvirta said. SA’s sulphur dioxide emission limits were last year cut to 1,000mg per cubic metre from 3,500mg, well above the limits in India and China.
Myllyvirta put the cost of fitting Eskom’s plants with the equipment, known as flue-gas desulfurisation units, at between R100bn and R200bn. The state-owned power utility, which is about R400bn in debt, has previously said it would need to spend R300bn to comply with SA’s emission standards.
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