Hendrina power station is one of the facilities set to close in the next five years. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Hendrina power station is one of the facilities set to close in the next five years. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Eskom’s closure of five old coal-fired power stations over the next 10 years, at a loss of about 30,000 direct and indirect jobs, was foreseen more than a decade ago.

In the next five years it will close the 2,000MW Hendrina, 1,600MW Camden, 1,000MW Komati and 3,000MW Kriel power stations, spokesman Khulu Phasiwe says. A fifth station, the 1,200MW Grootvlei, will close within 10 years. Komati is the oldest of these power stations, which came on line between 1961 and 1979.

Oddly, the 40-year-old Arnot (2,100MW) is not on the closure list. Some suspect this is because the Gupta family’s Tegeta Exploration & Resources has the coal supply contract but Phasiwe says it is because there are still nearby coal resources.

Including these five power stations, the rest of the coal fleet, Koeberg nuclear power station and hydropower, but excluding 2,500MW of diesel-fired peak power, Eskom’s own generation capacity reported last May was about 42,500MW. Since then, the 1,333MW Ingula pumped storage scheme and 800MW from the first Kusile unit have started to contribute.

In the past eight years the department of energy has signed up 6,422MW of renewable power from independent companies, including 1,121MW in the fourth round of bids. So far 2,902MW has been connected to the grid. Eskom has delayed signing offtake agreements for the fourth round, citing affordability, but Engineering News reported that the entity had recently approached the relevant government departments to provide support under the Government Support Framework Agreement.

Phasiwe says despite slower electricity demand in SA recently, Eskom is obliged to sign the offtake agreements for more renewable power. To make space in the system, these five power stations had to be closed. The decision was accelerated by operational issues at these stations.

Eskom’s reluctance to take on more renewable power contrasts with its regular public statements urging the need for more nuclear power.

To make space in the system, these five power stations had to be closed

Xavier Prévost of XMP Consulting says Eskom has excess power because industry is consuming less. Eskom’s coal consumption was well below its expected 120Mt in 2015/2016 and is likely to be even lower in 2016/2017. This year supply is likely to shrink as several mines came under financial pressure from the previous period of low seaborne prices, so Eskom might have to pay sharply higher prices to secure its requirements.

Robyn Hugo, attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), says these polluting power stations are far older than world averages and should have been decommissioned years ago. The decision has nothing to do with renewable energy. The CER, acting on behalf of Earthlife, groundWork and affected communities, has opposed Eskom’s applications for exemptions from compliance with emissions standards in the Air Quality Act.

Mike Levington, a council member of the Ministerial Advisory Council for Energy, says Eskom drew up plans for closure of old coal-fired power stations in the early 2000s.

These older stations are expensive to operate and it would cost billions to retrofit them to achieve emissions compliance, Levington says. SA’s long-term energy plan to 2050, the Integrated Resource Plan, provides for the closure of 27,500MW of old coal-fired power between 2025 and 2040.

That will obviously affect the economy of Mpumalanga, but there is a 25-year window in which to make the transition, Levington says. The renewable energy industry, particularly solar photovoltaic, creates more jobs/MW than coal does and can be located in the old coal-mining areas.

Cosatu says if there is too much power the nuclear programme should be cancelled

Phasiwe says there was planning for closure but the decision had to be brought forward. The main reasons for closure are financial, not the meeting of air quality standards. Eskom has received extensions to comply with the law to 2025 and has started retrofitting clean air technology.

Prévost says the five power stations scheduled for decommissioning were old and outdated, but renovating and retrofitting them with clean coal technologies would still be cheaper than building new ones. Eskom is likely to find demand for electricity starts to improve this year and next year and it will not be able to meet it because it will not be able to source enough coal.

The decision to close the stations caused an outcry. Members of the Coal Transportation Forum blockaded Pretoria to protest and the National Union of Mineworkers said it was "senseless, irrational and malicious". Cosatu says if there is too much power the nuclear programme should be cancelled.

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