Ideas & Debate

Kenya must be open-minded on coal energy

coal demo
Activists demonstrate against the construction of a coal plant in Lamu County during the World Environment Day. PHOTO | NMG 

The environmental lobbies have been challenging the use of coal energy in Kenya advised mainly by the global climate change agenda, and also pollution from coal emissions. The focus appears to be on coal power generation in Lamu and the potential development of coal reserves in Kitui.

I am a committed advocate of global climate change mitigation who believes that the world (including Kenya) should gradually transition to low carbon economy by reducing use of oil and coal and maximizing utilization of renewable energy.

I am also a pragmatist who believes that each nation of the world must contribute its "fair and equitable" effort towards the climate change objectives commensurate with that nation’s socio-economic situation and capabilities.

Kenya’s current and projected energy mix, which I assume is reflected in the Nationally Determined Contributions for the Paris Climate Accord, has a high enough content of low carbon renewable energy(hydro, geothermal, wind and solar) and has future plans for nuclear and natural gas .

This mix is ambitiously green and can justifiably accommodate "some" percentage of high carbon fossil energy, like coal, if Kenya’s socio-economic needs so dictate. From the global climate obligations viewpoint, no lobby should point a finger at Kenya for not doing enough on climate change mitigation, or for including some coal in our energy mix. Yes, we need to be reasonable with ourselves.

In respect of pollution from coal particulate emissions, the latest technologies for coal industries and power plants ensure that pollution is kept to the regulatory minimum, and I am sure Nema are on their guard in this respect.

No credible global investor or financing bank will today accept to put their dollars into a coal project if they have doubts about the adequacy of technologies for minimizing environmental pollution.

The Kitui coal is an energy mineral resource that should be developed and prioritized to mainly provide energy for heavy industries like cement and steel. This will replace imported coal and heavy fuel oil.

Kenya imports about 500,000 tonnes of coal annually mainly to supplement fuel oil in cement industries. Any surplus coal from indigenous sources can go into power generation.

In respect of the planned Lamu Coal power plant, there appears to be three issues. The first and the second are environmental and pertain to the climate change and pollution concerns and these I have already discussed.

The third concern raised mainly by energy economists has been the daunting size of the 1050 MW new generation capacity which was going to create expensive over-capacity.

The energy regulators last week announced that this capacity will now be limited to a first phase maximum of 200 MW.

This is a sound decision because it aligns well with realistic electricity demand projections for Kenya. More importantly, it provides some additional base load capacity while avoiding crowding-out of indigenous greener generation like geothermal, wind and solar which should always remain a priority.

Downsizing of the Lamu coal plant will also create space for potential power generation from natural gas should the ongoing exploration work on the nearby Pate Island produce commercial quantities of gas. Yes, energy from locally produced resources should always receive priority over "imported" coal.

Kenya’s drive towards a green economy should be part of its socio-economic planning and should take into account its many opportunities which include indigenous energy resources. It should also look at energy unit cost and security of supply while minimizing imported energy.

Renewable energy should be preferentially pursued and maximized because it has minimal carbon footprint, and it is usually supported by good economics.

There are many other ways of reducing global warming. Energy efficiency especially in the transport sector where we need to reduce waste and emit less carbon is a prime priority area. We also need to massively embark on tree planting to increase number of trees to absorb carbon. Environmental lobbies should be visible in all these incremental green efforts.

In respect of coal, we should see it as an alternative option in our energy mix, and also as a socio-economic opportunity for Kenya, especially for promoting industrialization and employment. Coal pollution can be managed by technology.