Mercury emissions from South Africa’s coal-fired power stations
Mercury is a persistent and toxic substance that can be bio-accumulated in the food chain. Natural and anthropogenic sources contribute to the mercury emitted in the atmosphere. Eskom’s coal-fired power stations in South Africa contributed just under 93% of the total electricity produced in 2015 (Eskom 2016). Trace amounts of mercury can be found in coal, mostly combined with sulphur, and can be released into the atmosphere upon combustion. Coal-fired electricity generation plants are the highest contributors to mercury emissions in South Africa. A major factor affecting the amount of mercury emitted into the atmosphere is the type and efficiency of emission abatement equipment at a power station. Eskom employs particulate emission control technology at all its coal-fired power stations, and new power stations will also have sulphur dioxide abatement technology. A co-beneficial reduction of mercury emissions exists as a result of emission control technology. The amount of mercury emitted from each of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations is calculated, based on the amount of coal burnt and the mercury content in the coal. Emission Reduction Factors (ERF’s) from two sources are taken into consideration to reflect the co-benefit received from the emission control technologies at the stations. Between 17 and 23 tons of mercury is calculated to have been emitted from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations in 2015. On completion of Eskom’s emission reduction plan, which includes fabric filter plant retrofits at two and a half stations and a flue gas desulphurisation retrofit at one power station, total mercury emissions from the fleet will potentially be reduced by 6-13% by 2026 relative to the baseline. Mercury emission reduction is perhaps currently not the most pressing air quality problem in South Africa. While the focus should then be on reducing emissions of other pollutants which have a greater impact on human health, mercury emission reduction can be achieved as a co-benefit of installing other emission abatement technologies. At the very least, more accurate calculations of mercury emissions per power station should be obtained by measuring the mercury content of more recent coal samples, and developing power station-specific ERF’s before mercury emission regulations are established or an investment into targeted mercury emission reduction technology is made.
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