The economic and business case for mega-plants is shaky, even for the ‘planet-friendly’ wind farms such as in Turkana.
By DAVID OBURA
What do the classic indicators of income or economic activity, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or Gross National Income (GNI), really measure? One perspective is that they show how much a country, or group of people, has harnessed energy and material goods in the service of its people or members. A traditional hut, a first-owner home in Nairobi’s South C and the mansions in Runda show this eloquently.
But is energy the answer to development? Is energy at any cost the answer?
We know that Kenyans are energy-hungry – families need light so children can study, farmers and factories for production, cities for their vibrant life and the country for development. Our mobile phones, databanks, lifts, factories and grand malls are useless without a secure power source.
The grand plans for Kenya’s Vision 2030 that predicted growth in energy demand have not been realised in the last five years. So the economic and business case for mega-plants is shaky, even for the ‘planet-friendly’ wind farms such as in Turkana.
In pure energy terms there are many innovative solutions for decentralised energy production from renewable sources – and Kenya is endowed with natural assets not only valuable for their beauty for tourism, but their services such as energy that we can use (for example, abundant sun, wind, geothermal and tidal sources). And we can join many countries in the transition from fossil fuels in steps, ‘moving up’ the fossil fuel ladder from ‘dirty’ sources (e.g. coal, diesel) to cleaner ones (e.g. natural gas).
Cutting carbon emission
Efficiency is another way in which energy needs can be met without changing total energy production, but reducing waste. All businesses know it is good to reduce waste, as waste is a cost. Of course, it often takes money to make money – upfront investment in low-waste technologies may be high, but the circular economy principles of turning one person’s waste into another’s resource can provide many times the jobs and employment needed to transform Kenya’s economy into an inclusive one.
So, should Kenya do coal? The proponents say yes, as they stand to make a lot of money. However there are many reasons against, and it is worth scouring the arguments deeply – as the path we take will set a precedent and course we may be unable to shift away from, and at great cost not just financially, but in health, lives and the environment.
Kenya has made grand national commitments to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions in the United Nations climate change framework’s ‘Paris Agreement’ of 2015. So building a coal plant that will double the national energy sector’s carbon output destroys this.
But apart from greenhouse gas emissions and energy efficiency there is a dark side to coal that Kenya is naïve about – chemical, toxic pollution. With very low levels of industrialisation Kenya has not experienced the toxic pollution other countries have. We don’t hear much about the dark side of manufacturing – where companies have externalised the environmental cost of their activities by releasing untreated waste into rivers and streams. Elsewhere I have described how the Amu coal plant may become Kenya’s single largest pollution source, given the amount of chemicals in coal released into the air, water and soils, and the mountain of toxic waste that will be left behind – 4 km long by 1 km wide, and 25 m high. The Environmental Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) on the coal plant is largely silent on the true scale and implications of this amount of waste, and particularly the fact that it will be placed by the beach on Kenya’s most vulnerable coastline to sea level rise (itself caused by climate change from fossil fuel burning). The Strategic Environmental Assessment of the LAPPSET project does not even consider the coal plant at all! The health and social impacts of the coal plant are detailed in expert witness statements, with no effective or credible rebuttal with science or technical information from the coal plant proponents.
So back to the question for Kenya. Why coal? Now? We have wowed the world with M-Pesa, and Kenya is emerging as an innovation hub for Africa. Why go back to Victorian England?
From a business perspective, coal may look attractive if its costs are not brought into the business’s books. If ignored in the ESIA and licensing conditions, as is currently the case, these costs are shifted to the taxpayer and individual families – in hospital fees, waste cleanup, or declining land/property values. Brush the costs under somebody elses’ carpet and coal does look attractive. But we know that Kenya is becoming increasingly crowded, our elections are a potent sign of that. And the clamour for land and opportunity needs options that are not poisonous to the lives and families of employees, other workers and society at large.
We must certainly grow our GDP, and alongside that, the value and wealth in businesses and family incomes. But this can be based on efficient use of clean energies, not only at lower direct costs than coal in coming decades, but also without the social, health and environmental costs that coal will produce.
Coal is most definitely the wrong answer to Kenya’s energy needs for development – now and in the future.
David Obura is a Director of CORDIO East Africa, a non-profit that conducts research to support coastal and ocean sustainability and the impacts of climate change in East Africa.