Eskom was just denied a licence to pollute. Now it is worried about keeping the lights on.

Business Insider SA
Silhouette high voltage transmission line and smok
  • Eskom applied for pollution exemptions at its Medupi and Matimba power stations, saying it can't afford to comply with the law.
  • South Africa's National Air Quality Officer told it to take a hike, documents Eskom released on Monday show.
  • That will have "a very significant impact on Eskom's ability to provide electricity nationally", the utility says.
  • Eskom was recently named the worst sulphur dioxide polluter in the world – and it is barely even trying, according to a rejection letter.
  • For more stories go to

Update | Eskom says it is now legally obliged to shut down one-third of its generating capacity

Eskom has been denied a formal request that its Matimba and Medupi power stations be allowed to pollute far above legal limits.

Now, it says, it is worried about its ability to keep the lights on.

The utility had applied for specific exemptions from minimum air quality standards for its 34-year old Matimba power station and, more notably, for the giant new Medupi.

See also | Eskom now says it will take at least 8 more years to build Medupi air scrubbers – and it never wants to comply with air pollution limits

Medupi had been due to feature air scrubbers to remove sulphur dioxide output so high that it will, by one estimate, kill 900 people per year. Eskom now says the necessary flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) will not be in place until 2030, and even after that, Medupi will never be economically capable of complying with its sulphur dioxide limits.

Eskom's efforts to change those limits for its power stations, rather than reduce their pollution output, have now failed.

Eskom has "made minimal effort" to comply with South Africa’s minimum emission standards since 2010, the National Air Quality Officer Thuli Khumalo told the company in a pointed letter refusing its application, released on Monday by Eskom's environmental consultants.

That general failure is among the reasons she did not have the legal authority to grant the exemptions Eskom had sought, Khumalo said.

Eskom said in response that it believes that decision has "a very significant impact on Eskom's ability to provide electricity nationally, the economy, and the country's plans in terms of a just energy transition."

It now hopes to speak to the government departments responsible for energy, state-owned enterprises, and the environment, "in respect of the way forward."

What Eskom wanted

Under South Africa's rules, Medupi is supposed to emit only 500mg/Nm3 of sulphur dioxide. That is 500 milligrams of sulphur dioxide per normal cubic meter of gas, as pollution is commonly measured.

Sulphur dioxide, or SO2, is a respiratory irritant also classed as a systemic toxin for its ability to damage the heart, brain, liver, and testicles, on top of the lungs.

Under an exemption to the general rules, Medupi is already allowed to put out seven times that much sulphur dioxide, 3,500mg/Nm3, until 2025. Eskom had wanted that allowance set higher, at 4,000mg/Nm3 until 2030, and left at double the eventual legal limit for as long as Medupi continues to operate.

But Medupi must stick to the 3,500mg/Nm3 limit, said Khumalo, and has until the end of January to deliver a plan for "an offset programme to reduce SO2 pollution in the ambient/receiving environment".

Eskom had asked for the same 4,000mg/Nm3 sulphur dioxide limit for Matimba, until it is decommissioned. 

It had also asked that Matimba be allowed to emit smog-producing nitrogen oxides above legal limits, and for a break on particulate matter output at that power station too.

Khumalo, also the chief operations officer of the Presidential Climate Commission, denied the entire set of applications.

R55 billion to comply, Eskom says - at just Matimba and Medupi

In October, Eskom was named the biggest sulphur dioxide polluter on the planet, after a half-decade during which the likes of China, the USA, and the European Union dramatically reduced their output of the gas. They did so in part by retrofitting coal-fired power stations for desulphurisation.

Doing the same for Matimba would cost at least R15 billion, Eskom has said.

At Medupi, it previously told Parliament, the cost would run to R40 billion

But it would need considerably more than that combined R55 billion – in the order of hundreds of billions more – to fully comply with South Africa's emissions standards, Eskom says.

Eskom is due to release its interim financial results on Wednesday. 

Update | Eskom says it is now legally obliged to shut down one-third of its generating capacity

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