Eskom's pollution has been linked to premature deaths in Mpumalanga and Gauteng, an environmental organisation has charged.
Data from Greenpeace suggests that pollution caused by Eskom's coal power plants in Mpumalanga is linked to 2 100 premature deaths every year.
Greenpeace released two reports on Wednesday, March 20: An updated global analysis of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) pollution based on a full year of satellite observation, as well as an analysis of the deaths related to the pollution.
The data comes from the Tropomi instrument Copernicus Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite. Tropomi makes observations on climate and air quality.
Detailed analysis showed that the pollutants could be linked to premature deaths, according to the Greenpeace International Global Air Pollution Unit.
"The GPI Air Pollution Unit followed latest international research standards here which are also in line with latest publications in SA," Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Greenpeace International Global Air Pollution Unit, told News24.
"These are mainly: A, the CALPUFF [multi-layer, multi-species] dispersion model - recommended by US EPA (and also used by Eskom) and B, the Global Burden of Disease risk model for premature deaths from air pollution recommended by the WHO," Myllyvirta added.
However, while Eskom conceded that coal-fired power station could result in "negative health impacts", the utility rejected the conclusions resulting from the satellite data.
Link made is manipulative if not untruthful
"The two most significant issues which Eskom had with the report is first that the satellite image is of high levels of NO2 in the troposphere, this does not reflect the levels of NO2 at ground level. The Greenpeace article links the NO2 many hundreds of metres above the ground to direct health impacts, the link made is manipulative if not untruthful," Eskom senior manager for environmental management Deidre Herbst, told News24 on Wednesday.
She added that the state-owned power utility was investing R100bn between 2019 and 2030 to reduce emissions from power stations through upgrades and retrofits.
"The retrofits are focused on Eskom's higher emitting and newer power stations, and are estimated to cost over R100bn (in nominal terms) between now and March 2030. For the Eskom fleet, relative particulate emissions should be reduced by 49%, relative SO2 emissions should be reduced by 52% and relative NOx emissions by 32% by 2030."
Effect on health
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), exposure to nitrogen compounds can have a detrimental effect on health.
"Experimental studies have shown that nitrogen dioxide or its chemical products can remain in the lung for prolonged periods radioactivity associated with labelled nitrogen, originally within nitrogen dioxide, was detectable in extrapulmonary sites," reads the WHO Regional Office for Europe's report titled Air Quality Guidelines.
WHO asserted that SO2 and "particulate matter were significantly related to increased mortality risk".
"The health impacts of Eskom coal emissions or air pollution are not limited at all to Mpumalanga. Instead, the air pollution plumes easily travel up to 500km and can reach out to the cities of Johannesburg or Pretoria in a matter of hours," said Myllyvirta.
Several of Eskom's power stations are located in Mpumalanga. The company describes these coal-fired power stations as base load facilities.
The company says that its power stations consume about 50 000 tons of coal per day, generating 25 million tons of ash per year. Approximately 1.2 million tons of the ash is sold.
Eskom concedes that nitrogen is one of the waste products from its coal-fired power plants.
"Waste includes sulphur and nitrogen oxides, organic compounds, heavy metals, radioactive elements, greenhouse gases and a lot of ash," the company says on its website.
Greenpeace data showed that Mpumalanga is the world's worst hotspot for NO2.
The UN Environmental Programme warned that air pollution also placed an economic burden on countries through invisible airborne particles, known as particulate matter.
These particles are associated with brain damage in children, increasing healthcare costs and climate change.
"With the current example of a supply or load shedding crisis, it can't be more obvious how unreliable an electricity supply mainly based on coal is," Melita Steele, Greenpeace senior climate and energy campaign manager told News24.
At a press conference last Tuesday, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan highlighted several power plant problems - such as boiler tube leaks - that contributed to load shedding in SA.
The company says it set aside R50bn for maintenance over the next five years.
Eskom said that its power stations in the Highveld generally comply with the 2015 Minimum Emission Standards.
"There are five power stations which emit slightly above the 1 100mg limit. Three of these power stations, Majuba, Matla and Tutuka, will be installing low NOx burners from 2021 to 2027. In 2014, Eskom applied for postponement to comply with these limits and committed to retrofit low NOx burners," said Herbst.
Retrofit programmes for coal power plants have been delayed but will be implemented by 2027, said Eskom.
But Greenpeace says that South Africa should move toward renewable energy production instead of continuing to operate of the fleet of ageing coal-fired power plants.
"South Africa has huge potential for renewable energy, solar and wind in particular. It would offer a quick - and very cheap - solution to our energy woes," said Steele.