South Africa’s energy sector heavily relies on coal, with over 70% of electricity being generated from coal-fired power plants as of 2019. The country boasts about 7 billion tons of high-quality coal reserves, according to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE). Major mining companies such as Anglo American and Glencore have recognized the environmental challenges and are working towards reducing their carbon footprints.
Environmental Impact of Coal
Coal, an abundant and relatively inexpensive fuel source, plays a significant role in energy production. However, its extraction and use have profound environmental implications.
Coal Mining and Land Degradation
Coal mining, particularly surface mining, leads to extensive land degradation. In the United States, surface mines, sometimes referred to as strip mines, accounted for about 62% of the coal mined in 2023. These operations involve the removal of soil and rock above coal deposits or seams, significantly altering the landscape.
For instance, in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky, mountaintop removal and valley fill mining have affected large areas. This form of coal extraction involves the use of explosives to remove the tops of mountains, and the resulting debris often covers streams, altering water flow and potentially introducing pollutants harmful to aquatic wildlife downstream.
Water pollution is another significant concern associated with coal mining. Acid mine drainage (AMD) is a common issue, where mining activities expose rocks containing the sulfur-bearing mineral pyrite. When pyrite reacts with air and water, it forms sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. This acidic water can wash into nearby rivers and streams, leading to elevated concentrations of acidity, iron, manganese, aluminum, and sulfate.
Coal sludge, also known as slurry, is another source of water pollution. In impoundments close to coal mines or by injecting it directly into abandoned underground mines, this liquid waste from washing coal is frequently toxic. Leaks or spills from these storage sites can contaminate both underground and surface waters.
Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Burning coal releases several principal emissions, including sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulates, carbon dioxide (CO2), mercury, and other heavy metals. These emissions contribute to various environmental and health issues, such as acid rain, smog, respiratory illnesses, lung disease, and neurological and developmental damage in humans and other animals.
CO2, the primary greenhouse gas produced from burning fossil fuels, is particularly concerning due to its role in global climate change. In 2023, CO2 emissions from burning coal for energy accounted for about 20% of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions and nearly 60% of total CO2 emissions from the electric power sector.
Economic Importance of Coal
Despite its environmental impact, coal remains a vital part of many economies, including South Africa’s. Coal provides 77% of South Africa’s energy needs, making it the country’s dominant energy source.
Coal mining and coal-derived electricity are significant job creators and sources of tax revenue. Moreover, coal-derived electricity is currently more cost-effective compared to renewable sources like solar or wind power, making it a challenging sector to phase out rapidly.
Future Possibilities: Renewable Energy and Technology
Embracing Renewable Energy
The gradual shift to renewable energy is seen as a key solution to balance economic needs with environmental responsibility. South Africa, despite being heavily reliant on coal-fired power plants, has an abundance of renewable energy potential, enough to supply the country’s domestic demand and even produce zero-carbon fuels for commercial vessels.
The sunny Mpumalanga province is ideal for photovoltaic technology, harnessing solar energy. Eskom, the national electricity utility, is already managing several large-scale solar farms. A recent proposal by HDF Energy plans to develop Green Hydrogen baseload power plants in Mpumalanga, with a setup of 1,500MW of solar PV combined with 3,500MWh of hydrogen storage. This project aims to inject 1.9 TWh of stable electricity 24/7 into the grid, based on demand and able to peak at ~500 MW.
South Africa’s long coastline presents opportunities for offshore wind farms. Incorporating small-scale wind turbines into existing structures could significantly boost renewable energy capacity. South Africa’s high wind speeds offer very favorable conditions for wind installations, particularly along the coastlines. Research from the South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA) shows that there are currently 3.024 MW of wind capacity on the South African grid.
Innovative Technologies: Carbon Capture
Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) technologies offer a compromise. By capturing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, these technologies can mitigate environmental harm while utilizing existing coal resources. CCUS hubs can spread infrastructure costs between emitters and generate economies of scale to reach emitters that are smaller-scale or further away from identified CO2 storage sites.
The Road Ahead
South Africa could realistically, and cost-effectively, supply 49% of its electricity mix from renewables by 2030, nearly a third higher than the share to be expected from current plans and policies. With renewable power, heat, and fuels all factored in, renewables could provide 23% of South Africa’s total final energy consumption in 2030, up from just 9% overall in 2015.
To achieve this, key actions recommended include optimizing the national energy sector structure, clarifying and simplifying the regulatory environment, undertaking research in key areas for the energy transformation, realizing the potential of embedded generation, increasing sector coupling capacity in transportation and industry, and widening the use of private public partnerships in the deployment of renewable energy.
Conclusion: Towards a Sustainable Future
The future of coal in South Africa is at a crossroads. As global environmental concerns mount, it’s imperative to explore alternatives to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Investing in renewable energy and innovative technologies like CCUS will be crucial. These steps are not just about environmental stewardship; they are also about ensuring sustainable economic growth for future generations in South Africa. Transitioning away from coal will require careful planning and investment, but it is a necessary step towards a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future.