Burning coal is good for you


Much of South Africa’s wealth has been derived not from gold and diamonds, but from coal. And so have many of our environmental woes.

Burning coal has provided us with some of the cheapest electricity in the world for decades, especially the major industrial companies and mining houses that have been able to negotiate secretive deals with Eskom at prices far below those you and I have been paying for our electricity at home. The cost to the natural world has been staggering (a recent study estimates that in 2005 in the USA, non-climate related damages from the use of coal in electricity generation alone amounted to $62bn):

– Sulphur and other contaminants in the coal, like mercury, lead and arsenic have resulted in acid rain and air pollution on the Highveld.

– Acidic run-off from coal mines has contaminated ground waters and streams.

– CO2 spewed into the atmosphere by coal-fired power stations has contributed to our enormous per capita carbon footprint which is on par with that of many industrialised nations. Eskom is one of the world’s top three CO2 emitters.

– Sasol’s energy- and carbon-intensive conversion of coal into liquid fuel, a technology hangover from Apartheid days inherited from Nazi Germany, has made its Secunda operation the planet’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the evidence that burning coal is a dirty business that is massively implicated in global climate change, a growing number of voices in business and government are trying to sell us something they call “clean coal”. There is modern technology, these coal apologists tell us, which magically turns coal into a green energy source we should be embracing. Sophisticated filtration methods, we are told, will remove harmful contaminants from the emissions of coal power stations and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will be used to trap the CO2 in subterranean rock strata indefinitely.

One “clean coal” technology that is being evaluated for use in South Africa is called underground coal gasification (UCG). First used on an industrial scale in the Soviet Union after World War II, UCG involves drilling at least two wells into an underground coal seam, igniting it in situ and then controlling the combustion process by injecting a mixture of oxygen, air and steam via the first borehole. The burning coal generates pressurised gas that is extracted through the second well and can be used to fire power plants or synthesised into liquid fuels, chemicals, fertilisers and hydrogen fuel.

Proponents of UCG argue that it is more economical and less environmentally damaging than conventional coal mining and processing. When combined with CCS technology, it would also result in substantially reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Sound too good to be true? In many ways it is. There are serious concerns over potential ground water contamination and while UCG may turn out to be “cleaner” than conventional coal, it has yet to be shown to be commercially viable. What’s worse, even experts believe that CCS technology will only be available on a sufficiently large scale by 2030 at the earliest, if it’s going to work at all.

The international coal industry, including Sasol and Eskom, has been spending millions of dollars to manufacture a new political acceptability for “clean coal” which critics argue amounts to little more than public relations spin and greenwash. Technologies such as CCS and UCG are often referred to as transitional measures on our way to renewable energy sources. But why use expensive, unproven technologies when well-established, off-the-shelf renewable energy technology, including solar and wind power, are already widely available?

The answer is simple: we’re still addicted to cheap, polluting and climate changing fossil fuels. In South Africa, coal remains the albatross around the neck of our national energy policy. Rather than investing heavily in this dead-end industry for one last desperate fix, it’s high time that we commit ourselves to truly clean, sustainable and renewable energy sources that will serve us for many generations to come. (Andreas Spath)

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