Coal mining remains important

29th March 2024 By: Trent Roebeck - Features Reporter

Coal mining remains important

PROFESSOR NICOLA WAGNER South Africa still has vast coal mine reserves that should be explored and exploited

A prosperous future for the coal mining industry in South Africa depends on public and private sector parties tapping into its vast coal reserves, and power generation processes by State-owned power utility Eskom that comply with gas emission regulations, says nonprofit coal advocacy organisation FFF Carbon chairperson Professor Nicola Wagner.

Repairing electricity-generating machinery efficiently must be prioritised to combat loadshedding, in addition to timely maintenance of generation plants to improve Eskom’s coal-fired power plant energy availability factor, Wagner adds.

These actions should be the focus, rather than efforts to shift the majority of the blame for fossil fuel emissions to coal mines, by calling for and forcing their closure.

Although the vehicles used in coal mines emit carbon dioxide, the majority of coal mines have improved their environmental footprint by substantially reducing pollution and the impact of mining activities on the environment, she points out.

However, Eskom’s burning of coal for power generation remains problematic, as the organisation, generally, does not comply with legislation associated with air-quality standards owing to the age of some of its older plant and the hefty price tag associated with retrofitting flue gas cleaning equipment.

“This is what gives coal mining a bad name – the fact that Eskom is not compliant,” Wagner declares.

In addition to poor management and corruption, inadequate procurement practises, as well as vandalism and poor maintenance of equipment at Eskom power stations, certain contracted coal mines, or third parties, supply contaminated coal to Eskom. The coal contains metal, rocks and other materials to make it heavier, for which suppliers receive a higher price when loads are weighed during the transport process.

Consequently, Eskom is forced to conduct additional unplanned maintenance and repairs on equipment and machinery as a result of burning inappropriate materials, causing not only downtime at power stations, but also elevated levels of loadshedding.

Further, Wagner asserts that a growing call to stop coal mining in South Africa is detrimental to the economy, as coal is vital for the domestic generation of energy and electricity, as well as is a crucial source of foreign revenue through the export market.

Coal is also necessary for the inland domestic market, such as for use in industrial boilers, which require coal for steam and heating purposes at factories, schools and hospitals. Niche-market applications such as the supply of activated carbon, carbon building materials, carbon fibres, and fertilisers, require a steady supply of coal. Therefore, government entities should be more open to allocating coal mining exploration and production licences to suitable applicants who meet all the necessary criteria to ensure energy security for these small-scale users and supply of coal as a carbon-feedstock to niche markets.

Key Resource

Coal is one of the resources available for energy generation, and a well-structured energy mix will contribute to energy security and enhance the economy of South Africa. In addition, coal mines need to be kept open for reasons other than electricity generation purposes, including job security, says Wagner.

As such, untapped coal resources need to be targeted to assist small-scale coal users requiring good-quality coal.

In addition, she notes that Eskom can use a poorer-quality coal, as some of its coal-fired stations are designed to burn low-quality coal.

Meanwhile, Wagner emphasises the need to collaborate with Eskom and large and smaller mining companies, to identify ways of enhancing the total coal value chain by extracting products from coal discard and combustion ash.

Going forward, there is a significant need to keep local coal mines open for South Africa’s existing coal-fired baseload power-generating fleet and domestic market, and Wagner advocates for making the process of acquiring coal mining licences more effective.