South Africa Power Giant Is Now World’s Biggest Sulfur Dioxide Emitter, CREA Says
Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., South Africa’s coal-reliant power utility, has become the world’s biggest emitter of sulfur dioxide, a pollutant linked to ailments ranging from asthma to heart attacks, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said.
Eskom produced 1,600 kilotons of the pollutant in 2019, the latest year for which comparable data is available, according to the report released on Tuesday by CREA, an air-pollution research organization. That was more than any company, and the total emission of the power sector of any country with the exception of India.
While China, the U.S. and the European Union have slashed sulfur dioxide emissions in recent years by fitting pollution abatement equipment to power plants, Eskom has only done so at one of its 15 coal-fired facilities. Eskom has disputed a 2019 study that tie its emissions to more than 2,000 deaths a year, though it said its pollution killed 320 people annually.
“They need to comply with minimum emission standards to reduce the burden they place on public health,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA, in an interview. “The only viable way to do that is to phase out some of the plants that are in the worse condition in terms of reliability and upgrade the rest.”
South Africa’s environment department referred questions on what Eskom is doing to fit its plants with pollution abatement equipment to the company.
“The department developed legislation to manage emissions,” the country’s environment department said in a response to queries. “In case of non-compliances, the department has a duty to enforce the legislation.”
China has slashed its annual emissions to 780 kilotons from 13,000 kilotons in 2006, CREA said. The nation’s biggest coal-fired power plant operator, Huaneng Power, emitted 26 kilotons of sulfur dioxide last year from a fleet of power stations with almost twice Eskom’s installed capacity of about 44,000 megawatts, it said.
Eskom’s pollution is also high because of the high sulfur content of the coal it burns, Myllyvirta said. South Africa’s sulfur dioxide emission limits were last year cut to 1,000 milligrams per normal cubic meter from 3,500 milligrams, well above the limits in India and China.
Myllyvirta put the cost of fitting Eskom’s plants with the equipment, known as flue-gas desulfurization units, at between 100 billion rand ($6.6 billion) and 200 billion rand. Eskom has previously said it would need to spend 300 billion rand to comply with South Africa’s emission standards.
The state-owned power utility is more than 400 billion rand in debt.
“Eskom is fully aware of its obligations to the environment and to the community,” the company said in a response to queries. “It has embarked on a program to transition retiring coal-fired power stations to renewable energy sources.”
The company plans to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by two thirds by 2035, Eskom’s Chief Executive Officer, Andre de Ruyter, said in a speech at a university on Tuesday.
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