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Eskom plans its first biomass plant

Apr 09 2017 06:06
Sizwe sama Yende

Johannesburg - Power utility Eskom is planning to build its first biomass plant in Mpumalanga in its endeavour to reduce its carbon emissions that contribute more than 50% of the country’s total greenhouse gasses.

The planning of the project – which Eskom will undertake with the SA Forestry Company Limited (Safcol) and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) – is at an advanced stage.

Eskom will develop the IDC’s Zebrapellets in Sabie into a torrefied pellet plant.

This is where wood produced in Safcol’s forests will be torrefied – meaning it will be heated without oxygen, breaking its fibrous structure and removing moisture and some volatiles to give it coal-like properties.

The pellets will then be transported to Arnot Power Station to be used to generate electricity.

The woody pellets will be burnt together with coal – a process called biomass co-firing.

The plant is expected to produce about 80 000 tons of pellets per annum.

Eskom’s production engineering integration coal senior manager, Yokesh Singh, said that, unlike wind and solar, this will be a base load and high-capacity plant.

“You can use the pellets only but, in the context of Eskom, you will need a lot of biomass. So, it makes a lot of sense that we use coal as well. Biomass is more reliable than wind and solar energy,” Singh said.

“This project will reduce the carbon emissions, as we will not be using much coal,” he added.

The project comes at a time when environmental organisations have upped their ante to fight the establishment of more coal-powered stations in the country.

A few weeks ago, Earthlife Africa took Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa to court for giving an environmental authorisation for the establishment of the 1 200 megawatt Thabametsi power station in Lephalale, Limpopo, without a climate change assessment having been done.

Thabametsi and Khanyisa (based in Mpumalanga) won the first bid window to build South Africa’s first independent coal-fired power stations last October, under the coal Independent Power Producers programme, which is the first base load energy programme that allows the private sector to provide coal-generated energy.

The North Gauteng High Court ordered Molewa to consider a climate impact assessment report, a paleontological report and comments on these reports from interested and affected parties before granting an environmental authorisation for the power station.

Environmentalists are lobbying hard for government to ditch coal power stations in favour of green energy alternatives.

Wind and solar energy, though favourable alternatives from the perspective of environmentalists, are proving to be a headache in South Australia where wind energy is used on a large scale.

The area is affected by load shedding when there is low wind and a heat wave – costing businesses some income.

Singh said that other advantages of the Mpumalanga biomass plant are that it would provide access to electricity in rural areas and increase the number of jobs in the forestry industry, while creating new ones in the biomass processing plant.

Singh said that details about the costs of modifying the Zebrapellet plant and the number of job opportunities to be created had not yet been determined.

Singh said that Eskom had acquired a technology licence agreement from Dutch company, Blackwood Technology BV, that has agreed to do a demo plant engineering study.

Another concern for environmentalists in Mpumalanga’s Highveld region, where 80% of South Africa’s electricity is generated from coal, has been sicknesses due to exposure to polluted air.

People living near power stations suffer from asthma, emphysema and lung cancer, heart palpitations and heart attacks, and strokes.

Research done by groundWork and Friends of the Earth International found that 2 200 deaths in South Africa were caused by exposure to polluted air from Eskom’s coal-powered electricity stations.

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