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Power to the People

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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  1. anastassia molto says:

    i thought the world was so over coal. are we really going to regress..

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  2. Andy says:

    we got so much of the black rock… it’s too easy to just dig it up and burn it.

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  3. Power to the Sheeple says:

    Only in South Africa have people not clicked that anthropogenic GW is junk science in the service of a crypto-communist taxation agenda funded by far cats like George Soros and Chairman Mo (Maurice Strong) then powered by the naivete of a whole generation schooled in green guilt. The same people who shed tears of blood over the plight of the poor then want to prevent access to cheap energy to combat a non-existent threat. Amazing. Here’s a mainstream takedown of climate ‘science’ by Der Spiegel: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,686697,00.html

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  4. Teotwawki says:

    Poor Power to the Sheeple,
    You (and many others) have not yet realised that GW is simply a symptom, and not the real issue. The real issue being our consumption of natural resources as if we live in a linear system, all the while living in a closed system. Do you really think that tearing everything out of the ground/sea and then processing/burning it all does no damage? The only sheeple out there are the ones who blindly believe that capitalism, consumerism and all their bells and whistles are their “right” as a human being because they’ve “worked hard” for what they’ve got, so fuck the planet and anyone who wants them to give up a little of what is “theirs”. Arsehole.

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  5. Cyrus the Virus says:

    So while the world implodes a select few are making bucks. Nothing new.

    Nice mansion there, comrade, pity the mudslide/earthquake/flood destroyed it.

    Atlas is shrugging. Fuck us all.

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  6. Power to the Sheeple says:


    Who said I endorse “tearing everything out of the ground/sea and then processing/burning” it? This is the mistake AGW supporters make all the time. Because someone says AGW science is questionable doesn’t mean they want the environment destroyed. On the contrary it makes sense to deal with issues we know for a fact are real threats, rather than buying into a media frenzy around a trumped up threat. I’d love to see stiffer penalties for pollution and environmental destruction, starting with penalties for failure to recycle and re-use. Fighting a naturally occuring gas while companies trade carbon credits and offshore their pollution to the 3rd world reminds me of Don Quixote and his windmills. Let’s deal with the problems, starting with local solutions to local problems. All that’s happening is that the people you think you are fighting have decided to run public perception of environmental damage for their own benefit and you’ve bought the lie. Read the Der Spiegel article 🙂

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  7. cheerful persimist says:

    power to power to the sheeples, I bet you Dave didn’t handwrite this under the romance of a candle-lit shack in diepsloot with the rain and howling wind as his ambience, let’s give practical realistic solutions to OUR energy crisis pleaseee!!!

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  8. Gregory says:

    Guys what you dont get besides that CO2 is not a toxin/pollutant is that it is a insignificant greenhouse gas.

    rather have a power plant that has latest tech to clean the air of pollutants and cheap energy than have the population burn dirty energy like low grade coal or worse cut down forests for burning.

    this is progress indeed and will help us progress as a country to first world level and supply us a pool of resources to develop and switch when coal runs out …

    AGW is the biggest fraud against mankind.

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  9. dave says:

    @persimist – you’re missing the point. the accusation is that these power stations are being built for industry, often with HQs overseas, and not for the 25% of SA without electricity. the practical, realistic solution you’re looking for is to instead invest in smaller, decentralised, and cleaner energy projects.

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  10. anastassia molto says:

    sustainable energy IS cheaper.
    human beings life-spans are short and so are our perspectives.
    Someone is making a quick buck, and they dont give a damn about their next of kin.

    and yes, are we all separating our paper, plastic, glass, tin and paper.
    Its pretty easy once its routine.

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  11. Andrew says:

    @Power to the Sheeple, I will exercise my literary skills here by labelling you in ignorant prick

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  12. Andrew says:

    Oh yes Sheeple you do make some good points in next post and I just can’t help but see you giving away your age or lack of knowledge when on one hand talking about heavy taxation when not recycling, but on the other than GW is a myth. It’s not a conspiracy set about to tax you to death by rapacious governments out to screw the populous. It’s a tax based on your lifestyle. If you drive a small car, you might not even pay tax at all etc. Nearly all scientists in this day and age agree CO2 POLLUTION is linked to man-made activity. A few hundred years ago we didn’t have the technology to tap into what we do now. Oil has meant huge population growth, so add sheer numbers with ever-increasing demand and consumption for fossil fuels and you really see no consequence? This whole government conspiracy thing you presumably wield to sound revolutionist or one whose more enlightened than the sheep, but it’s dangerous when frankly action needs to be taken right now to curb emissions and look to clean energy. You quote one link to an article debunking GW, there are MANY – all by big oil, big coal — all those who stand to lose billions if clean energy practices are adopted (which fortunately is going ahead in many parts of the world – I’m bloody ashamed to be South African as an environmentalist in this present time).

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  13. Andrew says:

    And SABC news segment on all of this (few nights ago) mentioned only one sentence – right at the end – stating that ‘some environmental groups are against the plant(s)’. No mention of why. Many do not have access to the internet and aren’t aware of the environmental consequences of coal production. Many go on about global warming, but don’t know that hundreds (if not thousands) die every year from air-borne pollution from coal. This isn’t abstract like some see CO2 to be. It’s real. it’s disgusting that the state-owned or state-dominated television station should conceal the negative implications, yet hardly surprising.

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  14. Andrew says:

    Thanks for the article, Dave! Well written.

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  15. alexis says:

    @Power to the Sheeple.

    Ironically, you will find that Junk Science is a propaganda mission started by a leading cigarette company to raise red herrings around a number of topical issues so that they could rebuke scientific claims that cigarettes cause cancer from a seemingly separate source.

    Read George Monbiot’s How to stop the planet burning.

    Even if you do not believe in global warming – you should believe in unsustainable resource management and the dire consequences to the poor and the state’s ability to provide services that make good on their consitutional rights. Coal fired stations use immense amounts of water for generation processes, we have severe water restrictions, coal is only available until 2045. It takes about 20 years to gear up for another coal station – if we are to investigate otehr sources of power – we need to invest in that now, and not in coal dependent stations.

    Energy will become so expensive as coal supplies run out, that the poor will not be able to afford energy. Even with the low prices that coal-fired energy offers – the poor still cannot afford electricity with most living with paraffin, coal braziers and wood as primary sources of energy. How do you think a more expensive tariff boosted even higher by the interest that they must now recover on the loan will make energy more affordable?

    I think one needs to get the facts straight before dismissing the merits of clean, sustainable energy (which by the way creates far more jobs than coal-fired energy).

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  16. Roger Young says:

    Loan Approved by world bank this morning.

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  17. Martin Energy says:

    Here’s a map of the Desertec-project – an overview of solar power, photovoltaics, wind power and others in the EUMENA-Region (Europe, Middle East, North Africa): http://www.siemens.co.za/energy-efficiency/images/desertec-renewable-energy_596x430.jpg. Imagine the whole net becoming one single smart grid one day…

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