Six-hundred-and-eighty people might die from the air pollution from Kusile coal power station while it runs for a year or more without its anti-pollution equipment. This was stated by Mr Bobby Peek, executive director of Groundwork and Friends of the Earth, quoting from a Finnish study. Strangely enough, though, he didn’t tell us how many people might die from air pollution if Kusile did not produce electricity in this period.

I believe this number would be higher. I believe that running Kusile for a while without its scrubbers will save lives. Those lives would have been lost to the deadliest air pollution of all, indoor air pollution, caused by the burning of coal, wood and paraffin in shacks and other poor dwellings, some without chimneys. This indoor pollution not only kills poor people but causes dread diseases and can cause permanent brain damage in infants, so that they are mentally handicapped for the rest of their lives. I find it disturbing that the greens seldom mention this.

Load-shedding has been much reduced in recent weeks. In no small part this is because Kusile units have come online. Since load-shedding kills people, Kusile is saving people’s lives. However, we need to notice that load-shedding has also been reduced by falling demand. The South African economy now demands considerably less electricity than 20 years ago, which is alarming.

South Africa gets 90% of her electricity from coal. Coal has served us well but it is the dirtiest of all energy sources. South Africa has huge reserves of coal, cheap and easy to mine. The coal is of poor quality, high in ash (stuff that doesn’t burn) and low in heating value (energy per kilogram). However, it has the advantage over European coals of being low in sulphur, only about 1% compared with 3% in the northern hemisphere. The pollutants from burning coal include smoke (particles or ‘particulates’), sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), heavy metals, organic compounds and some radioactive materials. A coal station emits more radioactivity than a nuclear one but the radiation is very low, utterly trivial, of no danger whatsoever. SOx and NOx can cause a wide variety of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Coal stations also emit large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is not a pollutant but a wonderful, clean, safe, life-giving gas, which has never been seen to have any effect on the climate over the last half a billion years. Rising CO2 has seen a wonderful increase in plant growth.

The smoke from the coal stations can be removed either by electrostatic precipitators (ESPs) or by bag filters. The SOx, most of which is sulphur dioxide (SO2), can be removed by flue gas desulphurisation (FGD), which absorbs the sulphur in lime. This is costly. Up to now South Africa has had no FGD in any of her coal stations but has had very high stacks (chimneys) which disperse the SO2 high into the air greatly diluting its concentration. Some of our stacks are 275 metres tall, almost as high as the Eiffel Tower. NOx is formed whenever anything burns in air at high temperatures. Modern motor cars use catalytic converters to remove the NOx, but these get clogged up if there is sulphur in the fuel. Sasol’s fuels have none.

Grossly over budget

Medupi in Limpopo and Kusile in Mpumalanga are two gigantic Eskom coal stations, each with a capacity of about 4,800 MW. (Koeberg, with two nuclear units, has a capacity of about 1,920 MW.) In their making, they suffered from bad design, bad contracting, shoddy workmanship and massive corruption. Each was grossly over budget and behind schedule. Each has six generating units and two smokestacks.

Kusile became the first Eskom coal station to have FGD. (Medupi, in a sparsely populated area, has none.) It had six generating units, six FGDs and two smokestacks. Each smokestack receives the exhaust gases from three units with FGD. In October 2022, due to gross incompetence, the flue gas exhaust duct from Unit 1 collapsed under a load of slurry and caused severe damage to the stack. Since the stack serves Units 1, 2 and 3, all of them had to shut down. The repair to the stack was likely to take about two years. However, Eskom was given permission by the environment minister, Barbara Creecy, for Units 1, 2 and 3 to run on temporary stacks without FGD – in other words to run like every other coal station in South Africa. Right now Units 1, 3 and 4 are running, generating about 2,400 MW of electricity, greatly reducing load-shedding, as you will have noticed.

A far greater threat to human health and life in South Africa remains almost unnoticed and hardly ever reported. The reason is that it affects only poor people, and poor people are of no interest to the greens – unless they can somehow blame capitalism for their suffering, which in this case they cannot. If you drive past the squatter camps and poor townships of our country on a cold, still winter morning or evening, you will see a sinister grey-orange pall hanging over them.

The pall comes from the burning of wood, coal and paraffin inside dwellings for cooking and heating. The people in them are dying of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases from the smoke, SOx and other toxins. The concentrations of these toxins in their lungs are far higher than if they were breathing the outdoor air pollution from the dirtiest coal power station, even if it were right next to them. Even worse is the deadly carbon monoxide (CO), which builds up in the shacks and kills people and causes permanent brain damage in children.

When carbon burns completely in air, it goes to CO2, which is harmless. If it doesn’t burn completely, as in some indoor coal fires, it only goes to CO, which is deadly. When people commit suicide with car exhausts, they die from CO. Not even the dirtiest coal station causes any CO to reach people’s lungs.

Terrible fires

On top of that is the great danger from candles and, much worse, from cheap paraffin stoves, which burst into flames if they are knocked over. During winter you will read story after story of terrible fires rampaging through townships and squatter camps, killing people, burning babies’ faces off and destroying the only possessions that poor people have. Without electricity, people burn coal and wood in their dwellings and use candles and paraffin stoves. In the past, according to the Department of Housing, there were about 45 000 paraffin-related fires a year, causing 2 500 to 3 000 deaths.

The WHO estimates that over three million people a year die because of indoor air pollution. These deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in poor countries, especially in Africa. In South Africa it is the poor who die from indoor air pollution.

We must always seek to reduce human suffering, and we must use scientific analysis to do so. Look carefully into Groundwork’s claim that about 680 people might die while Kusile bypasses its FGD. Death has different values. My death has less value than the death of a much younger person. The death of a healthy five-year-old has a higher value than the death of an ill 90-year-old. And if a sick man would have died at 90 years and one day but dies instead at 90 years exactly, his death has even less value. A better measure is years of life lost (YOLLs). This is the measure I usually see in calculations comparing the loss of life from the pollution of different kinds of energy sources. Estimates of YOLLs from different types of air pollution are very difficult and imprecise.

However, they must be done as objectively as possible. Often, though, they are done not to establish the truth but to promote one energy source over another, invariably renewables over fossil fuels or over nuclear. Although nuclear power is by far the cleanest and safest form of energy, much safer and cleaner than renewables, the greens will always exaggerate the small environmental damage from nuclear and ignore the much worse environmental damage from renewables. However, I am happy to say that opinions are changing for the better. People are beginning to recognise the benefits of nuclear power and the suffering of poor people in poor lands caused by the mining of extremely toxic minerals used in the batteries, wind turbines and solar panels of rich people in rich lands.

Poor people suffering

In South Africa we still have too many poor people suffering from lack of modern energy, especially electricity and gas. But there has been much progress. According to the 2022 Census, 64.9% of households now get their heating and 94.7% their lighting from mains electricity. This is a huge improvement on 1996. The use of paraffin and candles has dropped to very low levels, which is marvellous news. But there are still far too many people without electricity or gas for cooking and heating. (Renewables are prohibitively expensive for cooking and heating.)

Every Eskom blackout increases the chances of poor people turning to wood, coal and paraffin, and so suffering death and disease. If the Kusile units had stopped producing electricity because of the damaged stack, people would have died, almost certainly more people than those who would have died from the pollution caused by those units.

[Image: Larry White from Pixabay]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.