DEFF minister Barbara Creecy on key air pollution & climate change issues facing SA
by Chris Yelland, managing director, EE Business Intelligence

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Johannesburg, 1 June 2020

After recent interviews with the minister of mineral resources and energy, the minister of public enterprises and the CEO of Eskom, which all touched on issues of air pollution, climate change and the energy transition that is underway globally, it was considered essential to interview department of environment, forestry and fisheries (DEFF) Minister Barbara Creecy for her input on these issues.

The interview covers:

- Eskom’s inability to comply with the recently increased SO2  emission limits.
- Plans to avoid installing FGD plant at Medupi power station.
- Under-reporting of legal contraventions at Kendal power station.
- Construction of new coal-fired power plants in South Africa.
- Initiatives to improve domestic ambient air quality in poor communities.
- Further priorities to reduce air pollution in South Africa.
- Initiatives to expedite EIAs for renewable energy projects.
- South Africa’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

On Eskom’s inability to comply with recently increased SO2  emission limits...

With your recent concession to increase the SO2 minimum emission standards (MES) from 500 to 1000 mg/Nm3, thus making the SO2 emissions requirement twice as lenient, Eskom advises me that only Kusile will comply with the relaxed SO2 limit, and it appears that there are no plans by Eskom to ever comply with the MES at its other coal-fired power stations. If this is the case, what will be the next steps by DEFF in this regard?

The first issue that one would want to say is that the new SO2 emission limits of 1000 mg/Nm3 only apply to those plants that were built before 2010 and that are not scheduled for decommissioning by 2030. Obviously, this is to allow for the fact that at the time the plants were built, the relevant environmental regulatory environment was not in place.

Currently, most of these plants are emitting three or four times this minimum amount. So, having a limit of 1000 mg/Nm3 will bring about a dramatic improvement in air quality. For any plant built after 2010, the SO2 limit of 500 mg/Nm3 applies.

The department is a regulator, and the regulations say that power plants must comply. There is no regulatory environment that allows any institution to say that it will not comply. In some instances, they may only be able to comply over a period of time, and plants can then make application to come into full compliance over time.

On plans to avoid installing FGD plant at Medupi power station…

Eskom has recently informed me of plans to try and get out of installing flue-gas desulphurisation (FGD) plant at Medupi. The retrofitting of FGD plant at Medupi was a commitment that Eskom made to the World Bank to meet SO2 emission limits as part of a US $3,75bn loan to construct this coal-fired power station. What is your view of Eskom’s plans to avoid FGD at Medupi in a way that this power station will then not comply with the relaxed SO2 MES limits of South Africa for the next 50 years of its planned life?

Well, let me start off by saying that I have only heard about this issue from yourself and from what I have read in the public domain, but I have had no formal communication from Eskom in this regard. I think that before I comment on it as the regulator, I would require a formal communication from Eskom.

As I said earlier, any plant that is built after 2010, and that would include Medupi and Kusile, must comply with the SO2 emissions limit of 500 mg/Nm3, while the SO2 emissions limit of 1000 mg/Nmapplies to power stations that were built before 2010.

So, unless a coal-fired power station is to be decommissioned before 2030, it will require FGD or some other form of SO2 emissions control technology to comply with the 500 mg/Nm3 or 1000 mg/Nm3 atmospheric emission limits.

I understand that the World Bank may be a lender for the Medupi project, and I also understand that the bank may have certain requirements that Eskom may be required to meet. But as the regulator of emissions, no-one has spoken to us at a formal level about dispensing with the FGD plant at Medupi, nor of not complying with the SO2 emissions limit of 500 mg/Nm3.

On under-reporting of legal contraventions at Kendal power station…

The Compliance Notice of 10 December 2019 issued to Kendal power station by your department says Eskom provided incorrect information using a calculation methodology that Eskom knows to be wrong, and is a “gross misrepresentation of the facts”. Further legal contraventions of Kendal’s atmospheric emission licence (AEL) and under-reporting to the regulatory authorities has since been acknowledged to me by Eskom in writing. Will DEFF lay charges against Eskom in terms of Section 51(1)(g) of the Air Quality Act in this regard, and will DEFF investigate the matter if the same reporting irregularities are acknowledged by Eskom to be occurring at other Eskom power stations?

Will you give me evidence of these further AEL contraventions at Kendal and the under-reporting of these to the regulatory authorities, that you refer to? [Yelland: Yes, Minister, certainly. I have the written communications in which Eskom itself acknowledges the contraventions and the under-reporting at Kendal.]

Let me say to you that, with regard to this matter and other matters, the licensing authorities that have a duty to ensure compliance are the municipalities. In this instance the municipality asked DEFF to assist them with the investigation into the non-compliances to the AEL that was issued to Eskom for the operation of the Kendal Power Station.

So, clearly, at the end of the day, the municipality is the authority that would have the first bite at any compliance issue, but we would step in if we were requested by the licensing authority to assist. At the moment, they have asked us to assist with this investigation. So, that is the role we play.

As you know, in an unrelated matter with this particular power station, I have also recently dealt with an objection by Eskom to a Compliance Notice that was issued by DEFF, where I have said that they do need to close generator Unit 1 and 5 at Kendal. I agreed that they can do this sequentially in order to maintain energy security, but we have said that they need to fix these two units, so as to comply.

We are also working with Eskom in implementing a review of generator Units 2, 3, 4 and 6 at Kendal, so that we can find out exactly what is wrong with these units, and what remedial action they would have to take in order to comply.

On the construction of new coal-fired power plants in South Africa…

Two planned new coal IPPs in the IRP 2019, Thabametsi and Khanyisa, based on fluidised-bed technology, will be amongst the most greenhouse gas (GHG) emission intensive plants in the world, with subcritical steam boilers and generators less than 500 MW. Can these new coal plants ever achieve financial closure, and what is the current status of these plants? How will DEFF address additional licence applications and legal challenges for these and other high GHG-emitting plants, including the 3300 MW coal-fired power plant proposed for the Musina Makhado Strategic Economic Zone?

Look, on the question of financial closure, all of us are aware that financial institutions across the globe are moving away from coal. So, I guess anybody who wants to invest in this type of activity would have to take that risk into account, and your guess is as good as mine as to whether they will ever find financiers for these projects.

I also do understand that there is pending litigation with regard to Thabametsi power station. So, I think at this stage I would not want to comment further on this. Furthermore, the Environmental Authorisation for Khanyisa has lapsed at this stage.

Regarding the status of a new 3300 MW coal-fired power station proposed for the Musina Makhado Strategic Economic Zone (SEZ) in Limpopo province, you will need to ask the MEC for environment in that province about that application as I am advised that application for the SEZ was made to that competent  authority.

But what I do have to say, Chris, is that if those involved in these projects follow procedures, there is nothing, at the moment, that outlaws the building of new coal-fired power stations. Whether those projects can be financed, and meet all regulatory compliance and other hurdles, I think we will have to wait and see.

On other initiatives to improve domestic ambient air quality in poor communities…

Whilst it is indisputable that power generation and industrial emissions in South Africa are by far the largest sources of air pollution, other sources also contribute to the problem. What is being done by DEFF itself, as opposed to the efforts of others, to address emissions by internal combustion engines, domestic burning of coal indoors, veld fires and the burning of waste and rubbish outdoors, which also impacts on air quality, most particularly on the lives, health and safety in poor communities? In your view, which other government departments need to play a role to effectively reduce these secondary emission sources?

Just prior to my time, the Cabinet and Fifth Administration approved a strategy to address air pollution in dense, low-income settlements. This brought together the Departments of Environment, Energy, Human Settlements and Health to look at exactly what could be done in this regard.

I want to say upfront, that in my view, we have not done as much as we could, either as government as a whole, or as the Department of Environment, to drive this strategy. There are some very interesting possibilities here. A country like India has made enormous progress in dealing with domestic emissions and improving air quality in the domestic space through the innovative technologies they have introduced.

We have already seen initiatives by the Department of Human Settlement to introduce solar geysers, and by Sasol and Eskom to introduce different forms of cooking in these settlements. But if we really want to deal with the ambient air quality issue at domestic level, we need to have a much stronger drive in terms of combining different initiatives, and driving them more forcefully from the centre

We are developing a proposal to the Presidential Infrastructure Co-ordinating Commission on improving energy efficiency in the domestic space. Insulation, solar hot water geysers and new forms of cooking are all important issues. But one of the things I want to see in the post-Covid19 economic recovery period is how we can work together much more effectively with Human Settlements to introduce a lot of these initiatives at scale.

There are also interesting possibilities in terms of micro-enterprise development, domestic manufacturing production, and job creation.

On further priorities to reduce air pollution in South Africa…

In your view, has the government made sufficient progress in improving the air quality in South Africa since the promulgation of the Air Quality Act in 2004? Based on your experience in the environmental portfolio so far, what actions would you like to prioritise over the next two to three years to reduce air pollution, especially in South Africa’s three priority areas (Vaal, Highveld and Waterberg-Bojanala)?

Well, I think I have already talked about initiatives that need to be taken to deal with Eskom and domestic pollutants, but there are two other issues that we need to look at here.

The first issue is that the monitoring and enforcement of air quality is a concomitant power that rests across national, provincial and local government. I think one of the things we can accept is that while in many instances local government is the licensing authority, we know that local government has limited capacity in terms of delivery in general, and  sometimes in terms of compliance and enforcement, in particular.

So, I think that supporting and strengthening the role of local government and licensing authorities is obviously a very important issue. We spoke earlier about work we are doing with regard to Kendal, and I think that that such work has to be done more systematically with all of these municipalities.

The second area that I think is important, is the question of improving air quality monitoring infrastructure and capacity. We have air quality monitoring stations that belong to local government, the South African Weather Service, and then our Department, DEFF. So, there are three owners of this infrastructure.

On average, at any one time, about 25% of this infrastructure is not in good working order. So, clearly, this is an area where we need to be doing much more investment. We have been working together with the Weather Service to put together a proper proposal for improvement of all of these weather/air quality monitoring stations.

We have also been looking at where we can source finance, either investment financing or donor financing. We think that this is a very important initiative in order to have correct and reliable environmental information on a regular, ongoing basis.

While the information we get is adequate, it could be much better. That is why we are prioritising investment in upgrading the status of all of these air quality monitoring stations. This will ensure they are all online all the time, giving us the kind of information we need for compliance monitoring and enforcement.

On initiatives to expedite EIAs for renewable energy projects…

Are there any plans to relax the regulatory requirements for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for renewable energy plants that are planned to be built on un-reclaimed mining sites? If so, in which respects, and why?

It is important to start off and say that there are no plans to relax the regulatory environment. Environmental impact studies apply to everybody in the same way, and there is no law for some and a different law for others.

What we have done is to identify a number of renewable energy development zones (REDZ), some of these being in former mining areas. We gazetted eight of these zones in February 2018, and it is our intention to gazette another three zones this year in Emalahleni, Beaufort West and Klerksdorp.

To speed up EIAs, we commissioned the CSIR to undertake what we call “strategic environmental assessments” in these zones. The advantage of this is that we have then already done a pre-assessment of environmental sensitivity. So, when somebody wants to apply for an EIA in these areas, we have already done part of what they would have to do anyway. This reduces the authorisation timeframe from 300 days to 180 days.

As a result of other work that we have done, we can then further reduce the decision-making timeframe. So, the current timeframe for a renewable energy development assessment within one of the REDZ is now only 80 days. This is important in terms of ease of doing business.

Initiatives to expedite EIAs could be done for other sectors, but we chose to assist the renewable energy sector because this is an important way to demonstrate our commitment as a department to speeding up and enhancing the renewable component of our energy mix.

On South Africa’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change…

According to the 2019 IPCC Special Report, global coal use in electricity generation must fall by 80% below 2010 levels within the next 10 years (by 2030) in order to avoid exceeding the 1,5⁰C limit. In addition, according to Climate Action Tracker South Africa’s climate change commitments, are “highly insufficient”.  How seriously does your department, and the South African government, take the country’s commitments in terms of the Paris Agreement on climate change? Please can you also comment on South Africa’s identified poor readiness to undertake a just transition?

Both myself and President Ramaphosa are on record as saying that we remain committed to the Paris Agreement and to implementing all of our requirements in terms of this agreement. We have a valid nationally determined contribution (NDC) to reducing our greenhouse gasses, and we are currently updating our NDC with an intention to submit this before COP26, which we have now heard will be taking place in November of 2021.

This is a 5-step process that involves a review of what has happened to date with regard to our compliance. From there, the process would involve our sister government departments, the provinces and the non-governmental sector, putting all the evidence before them and receiving recommendations. At the end of that process we would then be taking recommendations to cabinet.

These recommendations could well include an enhancement of our NDC, but I think that at this stage what we would want to say is that we are in that process of review, we are committed to going through with this, we are committed to getting buy-in from all sectors, and we are committed to making sure we meet all the necessary deadlines.

We have developed a low carbon emission strategy that looks at different sectors of our economy and the kinds of transition required to meet the targets by 2050. Of course, the issue that we are currently seized with is how to turn the key aspects of that strategy into implementable plans.

One of the things that I take heart from is the recently released integrated resource plan for electricity, IRP 2019, that substantially increases the amount of renewable energy in our energy mix. This is fundamental to the whole process of transition because, as a country, the majority of our GHG emissions come from the energy sector.

Other important recent developments are that individual enterprises and municipalities can now generate their own electricity, and this opens the way for a broadening of the energy mix. It also allows individual enterprises to reduce their energy and water footprints, both of which are important in terms of mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change.

I do agree with concerns that we have not as yet set up the Presidential Climate Change Commission. However, with two months of lockdown, there have been other pressing priorities that government has had to address. But the fact that there have been delays in setting up the Commission does not change our commitment.

So, may I conclude by saying that we do remain committed as a country to the Paris Agreement. We are reviewing our Nationally Determined Contribution, we want to ensure that we maximise buy-in in the review process, and we will implement all of our responsibilities in terms of the Climate Change Convention.

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