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ESKOM A Looming Environmental and Economic Disaster Author: Katherine Pretorius Eskom, the state-owned power utility in South Africa, is the largest electricity supplier on the African continent. Not only is Eskom the principal supplier of electricity, but it’s operation and substantial capital investment make it a significant driver of the economy. However, the company's operations have been criticised for their negative impacts on the environment and public health and their financial unsustainability. The energy shortage has significantly hindered the country's progress, causing the central bank to project a loss of approximately 2% in output growth for this year. Despite endeavours to enhance power plant efficiency and augment grid capacity, the efforts still need to be improved.
One of Eskom's main concerns is its heavy reliance on coal to generate electricity. Coal accounts for over 90% of the company's energy production, making it one of the largest carbon emitters in the world. This contributes to climate change and causes air pollution, which can lead to respiratory illnesses and other health problems, especially for people living near power plants. Furthermore, Eskom's coal-fired power plants consume large amounts of water, a scarce resource in many parts of South Africa. The company uses about 1.2 billion litres of water per day, equivalent to the daily water consumption of a city of five million people. This water usage has contributed to the depletion of water resources, and in some areas, it has resulted in the drying up of rivers and aquifers.
A recent study by Finnish researchers has revealed the alarming extent of Eskom's air pollution, which is estimated to cause the premature deaths of up to 80,000 people in South Africa each year. The study highlights the urgent need for the country's government and Eskom to take action to reduce air pollution and protect public health. The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, analysed satellite data from 2000 to 2016 to estimate the levels of air pollution caused by Eskom's coal-fired power plants. The researchers found that emissions from these plants resulted in an average of 7,600 premature deaths each year, ranging between 4,200 and 10,700. This equates to between 3,100 and 5,700 years of life lost per year.
The study also found that the pollution from Eskom's power plants affects areas far beyond the immediate vicinity of the plants. The researchers estimated that the air pollution caused by Eskom's operations results in an additional 72,000 premature deaths yearly in South Africa and significant economic costs.
The findings of the study are particularly concerning given the high levels of air pollution in South Africa, which is already one of the most polluted countries in the world. Eskom's operations also have a significant impact on the environment. The company's coal mines, and power plants are located in areas rich in biodiversity, including national parks and protected areas. The construction and operation of these facilities have resulted in the destruction of habitats and the displacement of wildlife.
Eskom has, however, expressed optimism that the newly published regulations pertaining to the national state of energy disaster will facilitate the expeditious termination of load shedding by the power utility.
In addition to the environmental impacts, Eskom's financial situation is also a cause for concern. The company has been struggling with debt and financial losses, which have been attributed to poor management, corruption, and inefficiencies. Eskom's debt has grown to more than R450 billion, about 15% of South Africa's GDP. This has led to concerns about the company's ability to pay its debts and maintain its operations. As a condition for the R254 billion debt relief intervention aimed at reversing the power utility's financial status, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana announced that Eskom would prioritise maintenance of its current generation fleet over-investment in any new greenfield projects for the next three years.
The unsustainable impacts of Eskom have led to calls for reform and a shift towards cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. South Africa has abundant renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind power, which could be harnessed to meet the country's energy needs. The government has set a target of generating 17,800 MW of renewable energy by 2030, reducing the country's reliance on coal and mitigating energy production's environmental and health impacts. Loadshedding is not just an inconvenience, it is an affliction which has real consequences that affect our lives every day. Now is the time to transition towards cleaner and more sustainable energy sources to address these challenges and ensure a more sustainable future for South Africa.
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