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Recent reports have revealed that the number of power plants constructed (either by the commencement or completion of building) each year is rapidly decreasing. Further, the number of active plants which are being retired is increasing both in South Africa and internationally. Coal power plants are being phased out (and at a rate higher than predicted) as the financial burden of maintaining these plants can no longer be justified when compared to greener alternatives. Similarly, the urgency of keeping total global warming below the 2-degree limit to prevent environmental disasters has motivated the shift towards renewable energies (such as wind and solar) in most countries participating in the Paris Climate Accord.

Despite growing concerns from scientists of alarming levels of air pollution and even though plants are closing down, emissions from coal plants won’t be decreasing anytime soon. Toxic emissions from these plants are a major contributor to global warming and have been proven to directly cause multiple health risks, and yet they continue to operate. For many third world countries in south and south-east Asia, non-renewable energy is a pillar of their economy and is responsible for crucial economic growth. Additionally, for countries rich in fossil fuels, it is more economical to satisfy their energy demands with coal. China, for example, through many multi-billion-dollar investments, has initiated a new coal-era. China is responsible for 45% of the coal-based electricity generated in the world as well as contributing roughly a third to the increased global emissions seen in 2018.

The main pollutants produced by these plants are:

  • Mercury, a highly poisonous heavy metal which is unsafe in the smallest doses. Mercury can be found as a vapour in polluted air and dissolved into rivers and lakes, thereby contaminating humans and animals.
  • Sulphur dioxide, a small particle that, in addition to contributing acid rain and crop damage, can cause asthma and bronchitis when embedded in human lungs.
  • Nitrogen oxides, most commonly recognised as smog, are linked to respiratory diseases, pneumonia and influenza.
  • Particulate matter, the complex mixture of solid and liquid particles such as dust, smoke and soot, is very dangerous for humans and animals alike, having been linked to heart disease and premature deaths.

Renewable energy, meanwhile, emits none of these hazardous chemicals and has now been shown to be more cost-effective than coal plants. When solar and wind technologies were still in their early phases, the cost of installation and development frequently outweighed the benefit of the clean energy produced. Now that clean energy technology has advanced, the costs involved have fallen drastically. As a result, renewable energy is on the rise and accounts for 17% of the US energy generation. New reports have shown that even when accounting for the cost of installing solar or wind farms, the costs of generating energy are far below those of coal power plants. The large quantities of fossil fuels (the price of which can fluctuate) required by coal plants only compounds their maintenance and operational costs making them more expensive to run.

It is critical that the energy produced globally is clean to slow the increasingly damaging effects of global warming. Regardless of the benefits of renewable energy (both financial and environmental) and the commitment of regions like Hawaii and California to 100% renewable energy, many countries worldwide shall continue to burn fossil fuel, with emission levels predicted to remain the same until 2050.