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Author: Dr Eureta Rosenberg & Claire Janisch

( Article Type: Overview )

We can use the three cornerstones of Sustainable Development to help us make more sustainable energy choices

When considering which energy sources are most sustainable, we need to ask ourselves, ‘What are the Social, Environmental and Economic costs relating to each source of energy?’
The following tables illustrate the ‘sustainability’ considerations that need to be evaluated in making our decisions.

Energy Considerations for Economics, Environment and Society
(Plus/Minus or Benefits/Problems)


  • In South Africa 75% of our primary energy requirements are met by coal. Local coal is cheap and this results in low energy costs, particularly for our electricity, which is the cheapest in the world.
  • Cheap electricity represents an important competitive advantage for South African industries.
  • The low price of electricity provides users with little incentive not to over consume. The availability of cheap coal also provides little incentive for developing alternative power sources.
  • The negative impacts of using coal are not covered by prices charged for energy. For example the external costs of air pollution resulting from coal burning include human health costs, in the form of health treatment costs, higher health insurance rates, missed work, and lost life.
  • The technology for generating electricity from coal is relatively inefficient and wasteful. Generating electricity from coal uses up large volumes of water, one of our most limited resources. Vast volumes evaporate daily from cooling towers.
  • Coal mining contributes to acid run-off, which damages our water quality.
  • The burning of coal releases ash which when caught in filters and precipitators and sprayed with water, results in huge solid waste dumps.
  • Burning coal contributes to global warming and climate change. The CO2, SO2 and NOX from power stations in Mpumalanga, Gauteng and the Free State, contribute to serious air pollution, and helps to place South Africa among the world’s top 20 polluters.
  • Acid rain caused by SO2 and NOX from coal power stations affect many wetlands, plantations, and large maize-producing areas, where it is already reducing soil fertility and increasing production costs. Downwind of the industrial Highveld, streams in the Drakensberg show signs of acid pollution and a loss of biodiversity.
  • The South African coal mines and electricity industry have generated a significant number of jobs.
  • Our coal is partly cheap because we exploit so-called ‘cheap’ labour – an issue of social justice, one of the pillars of sustainable development.
  • Millions of people are routinely exposed to fuels (especially coal in the home) which emit several noxious gases and particulates, which can be deadly. Acute Respiratory Illness, associated with exposure to particulates, is the second highest cause of mortality in children under the age of five.
  • Power plants contribute to many health problems including asthma, lung and heart disease. Mercury emitted by coal-burning power plants adversely affects children and pregnant women most.
  • Climate change will affect human livelihoods; pollution affects the poorest people the most.


  • Nuclear energy does not yet provide a major portion of South Africa’s energy needs – accounting for about 3% of current energy supplies – but is being investigated as a future potential energy source and alternative to coal.
  • Nuclear reactors are expensive to plan, build, fuel, and decommission. Eskom has spent over R450 million since 1993 to develop a new generation of nuclear power plants. This money comes entirely from South African taxpayers and electricity consumers. This has reduced the available funds for other priority areas such as bringing power to all urban and rural communities and cleaning up emissions from coal-fired plants.
  • Nuclear energy is not a cost-effective method of reducing greenhouse gases. Considering the limited resources for energy investment, disproportionate spending on nuclear research and development effectively reduces resources available for energy efficiency investment and greenhouse gas emissions. ‘A dollar spent on energy efficiency could displace about 50kWh of energy, whereas only 7.4kWh of nuclear energy could be produced at the same cost’.
  • It takes from 10 to 18 years for a nuclear reactor to produce more energy than what was used to build and fuel it. Nuclear reactors have a relatively short life span of about 40 years, after which they must be decommissioned at great cost and the build-up of radioactive wastes safely disposed at high cost.
  • Nuclear reactors do not emit air pollution and greenhouse gases in the electricitygenerating process.
  • The production of nuclear energy does cause pollution from uranium mining, the release of radiation and the production of poisonous waste. Thus nuclear energy has been excluded from Kyoto Protocol subsidies for reducing greenhouse gases.
  • Nuclear energy is obtained from a lengthy fuel ‘life-cycle’ which includes more than merely electricity generation. The cycle of production includes mining, fuel production, transport, plant construction and decommissioning. These processes release carbon dioxide. Uranium mining and enrichment, required for fuel production is extremely energy intensive. Using current ore grades, when the entire cycle of production is considered, nuclear energy produces three to four times more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than renewable energy sources.
  • Nuclear waste takes hundreds of thousands of years to decay and South Africa has no facility for the long-term storage of nuclear waste. Highly radioactive used fuel from the Koeberg reactor is kept on site. Concerned about the accumulation of nuclear waste, the City of Cape Town is officially opposed to the building of the proposed Pebble Bed Modular Reactor.
  • Nuclear power plants create significant health risks due to the constant production of radioactive waste, which must either be stored on site or transported across the country for disposal. The health consequences of an accidental or intentional nuclear power plant explosion would be catastrophic.
  • The constant need to extract, refine and transport fuels such as uranium and petroleum undermines the health and well being of workers in the industry as well as people in nearby communities.
  • The nuclear energy industry creates comparatively few jobs.

Associated Organisations:

Future Light , Beco Institute for Sustainable Business , BP SA , Bulgaz Convertors , City of Cape Town - Environmental Planning , Department of Energy , Eskom , Department of Trade and Industry , Durban Solid Waste Cleansing and Solid Waste , Spintelligent , Biolight , Savannah Environmental , International Institute for Energy Conservation - Africa , Kumba Resources , National Business Initiative (NBI) , Riso Africa , Nedbank Group , New Energy Technologies (Pty) Ltd , Programme for Basic Energy & Conservation , Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP) Southern Africa Secretariat , Sasol Limited , Living Green , Southern African Association for Energy Efficiency (SAEE) , SouthSouthNorth Trust , Chem-free Aqua , WSP Environment & Energy , International Technology Sourcing , I M Lighting , The Green Shop , Flexopower , African Windpower , Addicom , Green Life Store , eZee SA , Sunfor Technologies , ZM Pumps , i Power SA ve , Global Carbon Exchange , ELECTRIC BLUE LED CC , sustainableIT , Freefall Trading 115 , AdoGreen Recruitment , South African National Energy Association (SANEA) - , Greenability , Solarise Energy Solutions , Astronomical Society of Southern Africa - Dark Sky Section , Energywise Systems , SMA Solar Technology South Africa , Kestrel Wind Turbines , Exxaro Resources Limited , Nokia South Africa Ltd , MTN , Biofires cc , Energy Institute, Cape Peninsula University of Technology , Kwazulu-Natal Master Builders and Allied Industries , Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa (SESSA) , Utility Management for Africa (UMFA) , African Climate Reality Project - Food & Trees for Africa , Blue North Sustainability (Pty) Ltd , Confronting Climate Change Initiative , Africa Focus Consulting