What’s wrong with the proposed Lubhuku Coal Power Plant?

Eswatini is in the preliminary stages of planning a coal-fuelled Thermal Power Station in Lubhuku (Mpaka), which includes reviving the nearby coal mines that have been out of operation for decades. This project has been on the cards for years, and is part of the Eswatini Energy Masterplan 2020-2034 that was launched in 2018.

Is this a welcome development, propelling us towards prosperity and illustrious “first-world status”, or are we shooting ourselves (and our future generations) in the foot by replicating “first-world” mistakes?

Whilst we can all agree that Eswatini needs to work towards greater energy independence (i.e. reducing our reliance on imported energy), there are a number of fundamental issues that need to be addressed.

Let’s first look at the “positive aspects” of this project, which hardly hold much weight under scrutiny.

The official Background Information Document for the project states:

Point A. “We need to reduce our reliant on imported energy, and focus on local production through our abundant natural resource in the form of coal.”

We can all agree that Eswatini is far too reliant on energy imports, and that this needs to change – we need greater energy independence. The power plant lifespan, however, as well as the projected coal deposits in the country, are only predicted to last 30-40 years. At an enormous estimated cost of E12billion, there is surely far greater merit investing in our other “abundant natural resources” such as solar PV, wind and biomass – which, due to their very nature, are as close to an infinite resource as we can currently get (and also come with a much smaller price tag).

Part of our Energy Masterplan does include the development of 40MW Solar PV and 40MW biomass energy plants – but these are dwarfed by the focus on the 300MW thermal power plant. (MW = Megawatts, one million watts, the measurement usually associated with large power stations)

There is an assumption that coal is the cheapest form of energy around, and will provide the most stable form of baseload power – but this is a myth rooted in the past, when all our investments, subsidies and efforts were geared towards fossil fuels. Things are quickly changing, however, and it’s clear that renewables can provide reliable solutions to baseload energy. Also, in many countries (including South Africa) it is now cheaper to invest in renewable energy than in coal.

A flexible generation mix, enhanced grid infrastructure, demand-side options and energy storage can all be combined effectively with variable renewables to ensure reliable power supply.”

Eswatini, as well as much of Africa, is in a position to leapfrog investing in fossil fuels and head straight to a decarbonised future – a mind-set and infrastructure leap similar to telecommunications, where cellphones quickly became more accessible and more affordable than vast landline connections. Why follow in the coal-shaped footsteps of the Global North when we could forge our own futures with environmentally friendly and socially equitable energy solutions for the benefit of all?

Policymakers need to stop new investments in coal power immediately and redesign power market regulation to minimise stranded asset risk and accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy.”

Carbon Brief Report

The term stranded asset is really important to understand in this context, and is increasingly linked to new fossil fuel projects. As the world increasingly moves towards decarbonisation, we could literally see a scenario whereby investments run dry during construction or halfway through the project’s supposed lifespan as the cost of coal mining, production and energy generation becomes increasingly unprofitable – leaving us with the dirtiest white elephant Eswatini has ever seen.

Stranded assets in a decarbonising future – an investor’s nightmare

Point B states: “The project will reduce poverty, increase employment, and be inclusive of vulnerable group such as child-headed homesteads, women, and the physically challenged.”

Again, a full focus on renewables would see employment in projects that do not have a lifetime of only 30 years – we would be training, up-skilling and employing people in Eswatini with jobs that would be sustainable, secure and stable. Promising secure jobs in fossil fuel mining and energy generation is misleading and completely unsustainable, and we would be selling these so-called beneficiaries a quick fix solution that would eventually leave them stuck and dependent on a dying industry.

The project’s claims of being inclusive to child headed households, women and the physically challenged are also extremely confusing – unless the aim is to somehow rope these stakeholders into the coal mining industry?

Power Plant proposed location in Lubhuku, near Mpaka.

The Background Information Document lists the following items as among the many critical issues to be considered:

Point A. “The question of land ownership, land acquisition as per tenure arrangement for the 45ha chunk of land identified for the project.”

The affected communities require (and deserve) in-depth consultation. There needs to be a robust, grassroots engagement with all community stakeholders in the greater Mpaka/Lubumbo area to determine whether residents are in favour of such a project (given a full understanding of the risk/reward ratios). There is no way such a project can happen without earnestly involving all community stakeholders in the decision making process. This should entail a detailed series of community dialogues and sensitization sessions with a summary of concerns, opinions and findings before being granted any approvals whatsoever.

Point B states: “The question of land use change, from communal grazing to industrial use.” & Point C states: “The biodiversity issues. The site is pristine lowveld savannah bushveld in an area active in trans frontier conservation.”

Land-use change is incredibly important in a country as tiny as Eswatini – we cannot afford to lose the few protected, bio-diverse or communal lands that we have available. Losing community land for a highly destructive industrial project is something that needs to be done in conjunction with the affected communities – not a change that is inflicted by distant authorities and investors.

The fact that the site is in a pristine conservation area is extremely concerning – the potential disruption to the biodiversity and the ecosystem services of the area need to be fully investigated by qualified professionals and researchers, with a full impact assessment outlining the potential loss and impacts that would be caused by such a project.

The tourism sector also stands to be greatly affected here – and the various tourism stakeholders and associations need to be involved in the scoping and dialogue sessions of this project. Eswatini is currently seen as a top destination for tourism, and this is a large focus as we imagine our post-Covid recovery plans. How might visitors feel, for example, flying through coal fumes as they land at the KMIII Airport? How might our wildlife and community tourism projects in the greater Lubumbo area be affected by the air, sight and sound pollution of the power plant and its related mining activities?

Point D. “Water issues The Lubombo region is dry and arid. Therefore, water supply is of operational importance, as the power plant will need water for steam and subsequent electricity generation.”

Coal thermal power plants use an enormous amount of water for cooling and steam generation. The project proposes using the adjacent Mbuluzi river, which is already highly affected by intensive use by the sugar industry, as well as residents in the water-scarce lowveld. This project could easily push the Mbuluzi past its limits at the risk of all other beneficiaries of the river. A fully independent Environmental Impact Assessment needs to be conducted by qualified professionals to ascertain the potential impact on water use – as well as the risk of potential discharge and effluent from the power plant facilities (back into the river or the water table itself).

Point E. “The emissions issues. These are of paramount importance. Particulate matter and noxious gases that will be emitted during coal burning will have negative health impacts on the Lubombo communities and surrounding areas.”

Neighbouring Mpumalanga is already one of the most polluted places on the planet – with some of the highest levels of sulphur dioxide due to the high concentration of coal-burning power plants. The neighbouring communities, and the the whole Lubumbo region would be at severe risk from the emissions of the Lubhuku power plant – but the effects would be felt even beyond our own country (air pollution knows no borders). Mpumalanga residents are already experiencing a public health crisis due to the effects of toxic air, with a growing number of pollution related diseases and deaths, as well as significant and court cases pending.

South Africa is seriously considering weaning itself off coal, and recently, the South African NGO groundWork secured a court victory shutting down the proposed 600 MW Khanyisa coal-fired power plant in the Mpumalanga province.

We also have pan-African movements urging the continent away from fossil fuel use, such as Afrika Vuka, Fossil Free SA, and groundWork. There is growing momentum on the continent urging a full transition to renewable energy for all Africans, and Eswatini needs to get on board and not head in the other direction.

Mpumalanga has some of the worst pollution in the world – do we want to add to it?

And last, but definitely not least, the Background Document states; Point F. “The climate change issue. This is of global concern. The CO2 emitted daily from the power plant will contribute to climate change, a global issue that the world is addressing.”

The burning of coal emits huge quantities of CO2, and is the exact thing that we need to avoid. Such a project will greatly increase Eswatini’s carbon & sulphur emissions and be directly contradicting our own climate change mitigation measures.

We are also currently revising our Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – our commitments to climate action under the Paris Agreement. Pursuing a coal project would essentially uproot all our collective mitigation measures thus far, putting us at risk of not meeting our own national goals or timelines– not to mention potentially jeopardising our involvement in the Sustainable Development Goals, losing climate action funding, and dissuading “green investors”.

The climate crisis is real, and it is already here. This is acknowledged as the decade to seriously tackle global heating and avoiding 1.5 degrees of warming.

It is shocking to consider the amount of time and money we stand to waste on a technology that is highly polluting and totally unnecessary. Such a costly source of electricity is redundant when there are cheaper, cleaner technologies readily available.

Our international reputation is at risk from the impact of this carbon emitting facility as government and national stakeholders are urgently trying to access climate funds to adapt and mitigate for climate change.

Does Eswatini want to be a part of the problem – forging ahead recklessly with an enormous, expensive project that will cause untold damage to the immediate and long-term health of our environment and our society?

Or do we want to be problem solvers and energy transition role models? We have all the tools at our disposal –with the right political will we can create an energy sovereign nation with cheap, accessible, clean and renewable energy that benefits all EmaSwati for generations to come.

A truly independent and robust Environmental Impact Assessment will no doubt conclude that this project is too great a risk to environmental and human health to see the light of day.

Eswatini can be fully energy independent by 2030, running on a flexible generation mix of renewable energy sources. We need to adjust our mind-set and prioritise a just energy transition that is environmentally friendly, socially equitable and economically sustainable.

by Dane Mathendele Armstrong
(with shared input and concerns from objection letters and stakeholder input)

* We will be following up on this article with a series exploring the overall issue with fossil fuels and coal, and what renewable energy sources might be available for Eswatini.