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Ideas & Debate

Why Kitui coal is best bet for heavy industries

Kitui coal
Kitui coal should be viewed from a wider socio-economic point of view. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Energy demands can be broadly listed under their end use — electricity for driving motors (machinery, equipment, transport) ; petroleum for transportation ; industrial process heating; domestic and institutional heating; and general lighting. Energy can be further classified by sources —renewable or non-renewable; low carbon or high carbon footprint; and indigenous versus imported.

Most of the “formal” energy planning in Kenya has revolved around electricity supply/demand, petroleum for transportation, and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for domestic and institutional heating. I am not sure that Kenya has ever undertaken a comprehensive analysis of total energy needs for the entire economy to correctly inform socio-economic options for energy needs and supply.

My main focus in today’s column is industrial process heating, a key input in manufacturing economics and a determinant of production cost competitiveness. Industries which make or process cement, steel, minerals , sugar, tea etc require large amounts of process heat sourced mainly from coal, fuel oil, natural gas or in some cases wood and biomass waste. Which one of these fuels to use is mainly determined by supply economics (local availability, imports, and associated costs) and to some varying extent environmental impacts

Fuel oil is a product of crude oil refining and currently we have no operational refinery which means we have to import. All coal is currently imported. Exploration for natural gas is on-going in the coastal blocks with no immediate indications of commerciality. When available, natural gas will require critical import and distribution infrastructure.

In summary, nearly all the heat energy used for industrial processes is imported and subject to global commodity price volatility. In 2017, Kenya imported 463,000 tonnes of coal and 525,000 tonnes of fuel oil.

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This brings me to existing coal deposits in Kitui County which have been adjudged of exploitable commercial quantities, and of which so far there are no definitive plans in place to produce and commercialise. When I recently wrote in this column about the need to prioritise Kitui coal development, the Greenpeace lobby group strongly stated that the coal does not make economic and environmental sense, essentially saying that the coal should be left to rest in the ground.

Whereas I agree that alternative indigenous renewable (geothermal, wind, solar, hydro) energy is available for wider “electricity generation”, we cannot technically and economically use that electricity for heavy industries process heat. However, electricity is used in large quantities in these industries to power machinery and equipment.

We may not need to immediately use Kitui coal for power generation, but we certainly need it to replace imported coal and fuel oil for use by the current and future industries. If and when we discover commercial natural gas, and its distribution infrastructure is viable, then there may be an argument to use natural gas to replace coal for industrial heating due to its lower carbon footprint and emissions.

A country worthy its economic dignity cannot discover coal and then leave it in the ground, because some lobby group says it is not good green and clean practice. Kenya has and continues to significantly contribute to its global climate change efforts through increased renewable power generation. Kenya can therefore correctly and without any apology blend locally produced high carbon fossil energy (read coal) with the large amounts of renewable energy we continue to produce, and remain an acknowledged global climate change champion.

Kitui coal should also be viewed from a wider socio-economic point of view. It will be a nucleus around which the wider Kitui industrial economy will grow, and this includes cement manufacture from Mutomo limestone deposits, and steel industries from rumoured iron ore deposits in Kitui.

Any indigenous energy resource is part of our national wealth, adds value to the overall economy, and creates jobs, while improving our balance of payments through reduced energy imports.

Finally , I would strongly discourage any thought or plan to import natural gas from Tanzania either for power generation or industrial heating when we have plenty of spare renewable capacity (geothermal, wind and solar) for power generation, and Kitui coal awaiting exploitation for industrial heating .

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