BY ANTONY MUTUNGA
Since the 18th Century the world has looked to fossil fuel as a source of energy to serve its ever-growing population. For a while, it was the only alternative for those living in poverty and who still lacked access to electricity. Coal was in ample supply at the time hence it made economic sense to use it to supply the rapidly growing energy demand at an affordable price.
Today coal and other fossil fuels are still popular. For instance, according to a report by the World Energy Council, in 2015 coal still produced 40% of the world’s electricity. In addition, several countries have also moved to encourage the coal industry, with the US taking centre stage as President Donald Trump promises to revive the industry and bring back jobs. Trump has so far decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. He has also signed an executive order rolling back a temporary ban on mining coal and a stream protection rule imposed by the Obama administration that has allowed the development of new mines.
The clear and present danger of climate change means we cannot burn our way to prosperity. We already rely too heavily on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. We need to find a new sustainable path to the future we want (renewable energy). We need a clean industrial revolution. – Ban Ki Moon
Apart from the US, Africa has also started encouraging the use of coal to plug power deficits. Even though the continent continues to grow economically, still more than two thirds of the people in Sub-Saharan Africa live without electricity. This has been one of the reasons behind the embrace of coal – because it’s relatively cheap and available.
For example, in Kenya plans are underway to put a coal plant in the seaside town of Lamu, worth some Sh200 billion. The plant is expected to produce 1050MW and have a much lower market price, selling for about US$0.08 (Sh8) per kWh, as compared to the current high prices which are up to USD$0.19 (Sh19) per kWh. The plant, once completed, will first import coal from South Africa because there are no means to deliver the coal from Kitui County, until the 350km rail line between Kitui and Lamu is constructed.
The Lamu Coal Power Station, which is being financed by AMU Power Company (Kenya), Industrial Commercial Bank of China (China) and Standard Bank (South Africa) is expected to produce safe and reliable electricity to the people living in poverty, as well as help the country prosper. Richard Muiru, a consultant at Kenya’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum says, “Coal will give us some breathing space. We see it as a shot in the arm as we continue to develop our renewables.”
However, this plan has come under scrutiny as environmental economists and local leaders rise against its establishment.
And this is why.
Firstly, coal is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide, as well as one of the largest worldwide sources of carbon dioxide releases. It is responsible for 44% of global carbon dioxide emissions. This brings about climate change which makes it worse for the people living poverty, it brings about droughts, famine and other disasters, which set back decades of development. As Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, said, “If we don’t confront climate change, we won’t end poverty.”
Secondly, when coal is being mined and burned it releases harmful pollutants to the soil, water and air. These include mercury and other chemicals; they end up forming smog, which is harmful to human beings, and acid rain, which kills marine animals, plants as well as damages the soil.
Ministry opposed to plant
Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Regional Development Authorities, Judy Wakhungu has said that the coal plant will be harmful to the environment and that the ministry only supports the production of clean energy that does not have any adverse effects on the surroundings. “The Ministry of Environment is quite clear that there is no clean coal; coal is dirty, there is nothing like clean coal,” said Wakhungu during a visit to Lamu County.
When the coal plant is opened, it is likely to pollute the region, which is one of the major tourist attractions in the country. Lamu is regarded as home to one of the original Swahili settlements in the region, with an especially rich culture. During colonisation, the region was dominated by the British, Portuguese, Arab and German empires, which only augmented its rich culture.
The coal plant will affect the number of tourists who visit the area and will end up affecting the economy, as tourism is one of the major industries that contribute to the GDP. Apart from this, businesses in the region may end up closing down which further drive up unemployment.
The plant, once running, will also end up reducing the fresh water in the country, which is already scarce. This is because coal plants normally use a lot of water; globally the amount of freshwater used by all coal plants in the world can supply the needs of one billion people in the world. Therefore, the plant will use up fresh clean water, which could be costly to Lamu and to the country as a whole.
Coal-powered energy was the main engine of economic growth in the past but that is unlikely to be the case in this era. As a result of technological and financial innovations, the world has now moved to other energy resources, for example geothermal, solar and wind, which are cheaper and cleaner when compared to coal. The climate change costs of coal have increased over the years while those related to renewable energy has been reducing due to innovation. Most developed countries have moved to close down a lot of their coal plants with developing countries being the only ones still focusing on fossil fuels as a way to produce energy.
However, developing countries like Kenya are currently making progressive steps in the energy sector, with investments in new projects being made in order to lower prices. For instance, the Lake Turkana Wind Farm and a solar project in the north-eastern city of Garissa are expected to add more to the power grid and reduce the high costs energy. It is clear that, compared to coal, renewable energy sources are pollution-free and they do not depend on fuel; thus they are the better choice to help Kenya in its economic development.