South Africa: Eskom faces court challenge on Richards Bay gas plant

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Friday, 29 July 2022 11:39

Workers load liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders, as locals resort to using it as backup energy during frequent power outages in Soweto, South Africa July 1, 2022. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

South Africa’s first ever legal challenge of a gas-to-power plant takes place next week as the authorisation granted to Eskom to build a facility at Richards Bay is contested in the Pretoria High Court.

An environmental authorisation granted to state-owned Eskom will be challenged by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) and non-profit environmental group groundWork, with the case being heard on August 2 and 3.

The plant will be fuelled via a pipeline that will supply up to 3000MW of energy. SDCEA and groundWork say that there was an inadequate assessment of the climate change impacts of the project before the environmental authorisation was granted. Eskom, which is trying to reduce reliance on its ageing coal-power plants and grappling with load shedding, says that natural gas is an example of a fuel with “the least amounts of CO2 emissions during their production” which can contribute to a “just energy transition.”

SDCEA and groundWork argue that a gas power plant emits as many greenhouse gases as other fossil fuels over its life-cycle. “Forcing in gas will displace renewable energy development, raise the cost of electricity, expose us to volatile gas prices and increase pollution,” says groundWork senior campaign manager Avena Jacklin.

The court papers argue that the public participation process was flawed, with local communities excluded.

  • The information about the project was advertised exclusively in English despite the fact that 79% of the population of uMhlathuze municipality speak isiZulu.

Fossil fuel projects in South Africa have hit legal obstacles due to failure to carry out adequate consultation. In December, the Grahamstown High Court granted an interim edict against plans by Royal Dutch Shell to carry out seismic blasting along the Wild Coast.

  • Shell’s newspaper notifications were published in English and Afrikaans, but not in isiZulu and isiXhosa.  Shell is seeking to have the interim edict overturned.

‘Outdated Vision’

According to research from Meridian Economics in Cape Town in June, the idea of large-scale gas use for power in South Africa rests on a vision from 2012 which pre-dates reductions in renewable energy costs. South Africa’s Gas Master Plan published in December 2021 relies on the prospect of gas-to-power projects to meet anchor demand. The plan is based on the vision of the National Planning Commission’s 2012 National Development Plan.

In 2012, Meridian Economics says, power from wind and solar generators was 50% more expensive than large-scale power generated from gas. By 2021, gas power costs were almost treble those of renewable energy, the research argues.

  • South Africa’s current and future power needs can be met with very little use of gas, Meridian says.  “The only economically rational role for gas in power generation for the foreseeable future is now as a fuel for peaking plants – a small, intermittent but crucial role currently provided by diesel.”
  • High-use gas in South Africa’s power generation mix would mean a cost premium of 40% or more compared with an alternative combination of peaking plant and renewables, with carbon emissions seven times higher for the same power generation, according to Meridian.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of the ultimate court decisions, broader consultation processes including the use of indigenous languages would be one positive benefit of the Eskom and Shell disputes.

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