Global watchdogs oppose Lamu coal power plant plan

Energy Regulatory Commission director-general Joseph Ng’ang’a. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Kenya plans to build East Africa’s first coal plant with a capacity of 1,050 megawatts (MW) at Sh200 billion to drive growth.
  • Groups say cost of project to environment far outweighs the expected economic benefits.

Global environmental organisations have opposed Kenya’s plan to construct its first coal-fired power plant in Lamu over environmental concerns even as the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) on Wednesday backed the project.

Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund (WWF) expressed reservations warning of likely health risks to the people and degradation of pristine ecosystem in the coastal town.

Kenya plans to build East Africa’s first coal plant with a capacity of 1,050 megawatts (MW) at Sh200 billion to drive growth.

“We feel the coal plant poses real threat to the environment,” said WWF (Kenya) country director Mohamed Awer at a public debate at Strathmore University in Nairobi.

South Africa-based Greenpeace Africa shared similar concerns, urging Kenya to instead focus on green energy.

“Over the years, Greenpeace has clearly documented the vastly negative impacts of coal-fired power stations on people’s health, the air and water quality of the surrounding areas in South Africa,” the organisation’s executive director Njeri Kabeberi said in a statement.

“With the abundance of renewable energy potential, it is clear that Kenya should focus more on sustainable energy alternatives and stay away from polluting and carbon intense coal fired power stations,” she added.

Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) director-general Joseph Ng’ang’a, however, held that Kenya needs coal power as a long-term strategy to diversify its power mix and ensure reliable supply in future.

“Coal has a place in our power mix as a reliable base load,” said Mr Ng’ang’a.

The 1,050 MW plant in Lamu is equivalent to 45 per cent of Kenya’s current installed power capacity of 2,333 MW.

Electricity from the project will cost Sh7.5 per kilowatt hour (kWh), which is nearly three times cheaper than what diesel-fired plants charge.

The ERC reckons that 35 wealthy nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on average rely 60 per cent on coal power to meet their electricity needs.

Japan, for instance, relies 84 per cent on coal while South Korea’s coal power accounts for 65 per cent, according to Mr Ng’ang’a who said that Kenya’s quest to industrialise is hinged on sources like coal and nuclear.

The environmental groups are, however, concerned that the coal project will increase carbon emissions and present a challenge in the disposal of toxic coal ash which remains after coal is burned.

The coal ash contains pollutants such as lead, mercury and arsenic which could cause respiratory ailments and water poisoning.

But officials from Amu Power Company, the consortium that won the tender to build the plant, have continually allayed the fears saying they have lined up tight safety technologies.

For instance, they plan to use the coal ash waste to manufacture low-cost road binders and cement.

The energy regulator last week said it had withheld the licence for the coal-fired power project after a civil society group – Save Lamu Natural Justice – lodged complaints over environmental concerns.

“Greenpeace stands in solidarity with the Save Lamu Natural Justice movement in saying no to any new coal-fired power stations,” Ms Kabeberi said adding that Kenya should abide by the Paris Agreement in which it is a signatory that commits to cap global temperatures at below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“It is critical that Lamu does not make a reappearance, and we call for Lamu’s cancellation to remain final,” she said.

Amu had in September sought the energy regulator’s approval for power generation and supply ahead of construction of the plant.

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