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Power to the People?

by Dave Durbach / 07.04.2010

In Copenhagen a few months ago, South Africa emerged as a critical country in the fight against climate change, along with Brazil, India and China – powerful developing nations whose growth trajectories remain largely dependent on cheap energy. But all that “green speak” seems to have been tossed. With a newfound eye to the future, the good people at Eskom have been building two massive new coal power stations. A vote this week decides whether the World Bank is going to bankroll it. Global warming be damned.

A handful of Eskom projects offer some hope – the Ingula hydro-power plant near Ladysmith; a solar-thermal “demonstration plant” in Upington; Sere wind farm on the west coast. But renewable energy accounts for only a small part of Eskom’s plan to double capacity to 80 000MW by 2025. The main pillars of Eskom’s “New Build” programme are a blast from the past: two shiny new coal-powered plants called Medupi and Kusile, the first to be built here in the last twenty years.

In Lephalale, Limpopo, construction is well underway on Medupi; meaning “rain that soaks parched lands”. It will be the biggest dry-cooled power station in the world and will put out 4800 MW when it’s completed in 2015. Its “supercritical” design is supposedly more modern and efficient than anything seen here before. The planned operational life of the plant is 50 years.

On Eskom’s website, the majority of “environmental facts” regarding Medupi’s construction concern the clearing of the 840-hectare site, specifically the transplanting of a Baobab tree to the plant’s entrance “for aesthetic purposes,” and “some 30 to 40 animals…relocated to an Eskom game reserve close by.” No mention is made of its broader environmental impact, or that Medupi will reportedly add an estimated 25 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year to Eskom’s 40% share of SA’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Construction on Medupi began in 2007, when total costs were estimated at around R80-billion. Now, cash-strapped Eskom doesn’t seem to have the money to continue and has appealed to the World Bank for help. Before the end of this week, the World Bank will vote on a proposed R29-billion loan to Eskom for Medupi’s construction.

South African civil society and international environmental, community, church, labour, academic and women’s organizations have joined forces to stop the loan, calling on the US government, the largest shareholder of the World Bank, to withhold support for the project.

A second coal-fired power station is being built near Emalahleni in Mpumalanga. When completed, Kusile will be of a similar size, and will likewise make use of “advanced” coal technology, including Flue Gas Desulphurization (FGD) as an “atmospheric emission abatement technology.”

Further complicating matters is that a R38.5 billion contract for the Medupi station was given to Hitachi, in which the ANC’s investment arm Chancellor House has a 25% stake. According to an article in Times Live, the ruling party reportedly stands to benefit by up to R5.8 billon.

The World Bank has in recent times expressed an interest in financing low carbon growth in developing countries. This week’s vote will be the judge. What this actually means for South Africa is another story, who will foot the bill should the Bank say no? A recent article in Engineering News suggests that the government has no “Plan B” should Eskom fail to secure the loan.

The prospect of a World Bank loan for a coal-powered plant raises concerns for the future of development aid in general, suggests a report by the World Resources Institute. It calls for the urgent formulation of an Integrated Energy Plan for South Africa’s government.

Local NGO Earthlife Africa considers the new power plants a “fatally flawed” project that will contribute “to energy poverty and environmental destruction” in SA. Rather than provide for the millions of South Africans who still lack electricity, they believe that the new power plants are “designed to continue supplying the world’s cheapest electricity mainly to large energy-intensive industries, including steel and aluminium, whose corporations are headquartered abroad.” It will mainly be paid for by tariff increases imposed on ordinary South Africans, while the beneficiaries, the largest industrial consumers, are exempt due to special purchase agreements offered to them during apartheid and in the 1990’s.

Earthlife warns that should the loan be allowed, not only will the burden of financial debt to the West be felt primarily by ordinary citizens, but the project itself will increase SA’s “climate debt” to the rest of Africa. Already South Africa is responsible for 40% of the continent’s CO2 emissions.

As it stands, the only example South Africa is setting for the continent is one that says “it’s fine to continue investing in fossil fuels, we don’t care, we’re more concerned with the bottom line, and we’re perfectly content to let others take the initiative”. The proposed Desertec project, for example, is a massive German-organised plan to use sunlight in the Sahara to create electricity for Europe and the Middle East.

Recently deposed Eskom boss Jacob Maroga meanwhile sits backs and awaits his golden handshake.

Investing in new coal power is only less expensive in the shortest (and narrowest) of terms. While the Medupi and Kusile power plants may help alleviate immediate power concerns, they don’t offer anything resembling an energy solution for South Africans. In both cases, as elsewhere, the pseudo-science of carbon capture technology is being used to counter common sense that says coal is best left in the ground and money is better spent on sustainable energy. If the World Bank gives the green light to the loan, Eskom will be allowed to continue serving narrow commercial interests, and South Africans will remain in the dark.

Put your name on a petition to stop the World Bank approving the Medupi loan, here, and here.

All images were taken from the Eskom website.

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