Counting the costs: coal

True cost: the externalities of South Africa’s current main electricity supply technology choices[1]

The costs of pollution of are often not factored into the price

The costs of pollution of are often not factored into the price

When we talk about externalities, we mean that the true cost of something is not included, but is paid for by other people. A good example of this is coal-fired power. The cost of your electricity does not represent its real cost as coal-fired power is polluting along the entire value chain. If we were to add up the environmental and health costs of the effects of this pollution, and include these in the price, our electricity bills would rise astronomically.

From mining to cleaning coal, to combustion, to disposal of contaminated ash and other waste, coal-fired power is polluting along the entire value chain. Aside from the environmental impacts from carbon emissions, there are many others impacts on water resources, air pollution and health.

Impacts on water resources, particularly from Acid Mine Drainage, threaten groundwater supplies and riverine systems. Wide-spread water impacts include the destruction of river habitats and fish stocks, resulting in negative agricultural impacts and affiliated livelihoods. There are several examples of strongly degraded water catchment areas and rivers in South Africa, including the Olifants and Vaal rivers, and much of this can be attributed to contamination of water by Acid Mine Drainage[2]. Furthermore, water systems are contaminated by sludge/slurry pools where waste from coal washing is stored.

Coal and its emissions are responsible for respiratory diseases and a major contributor towards the bio-accumulation of neurotoxins such as highly toxic mercury in people and other living organisms.

Coal-fired power stations produce over half of the world’s 2 190 tonnes of mercury that are pumped into the atmosphere every year[3].


[1] This fact sheet was extracted from the Electricity Governance Initiative (EGI-SA) Smart electricity planning report for the SA civil society Energy Caucus 2013

[2] Council for Geoscience. 2010. Mine water management in the Witwatersrand Gold fields with special emphasis on acid mine drainage. Expert Team of the Inter-Ministerial Committee. Pretoria: IMC. Available at: [2013, April 11]

[3] Greenpeace. 2008. The True Cost of Coal: How people and the planet are paying the price for the world’s dirtiest fuel. Amsterdam: Greenpeace. Available at: [2013, April 11].

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