German lesson: Why Kenya should be wary of coal mining pitfalls

Heavy machinery at the Jänschwalde coal mine in Germany.

Lost somewhere between the past and the future, Kenya can draw plenty of lessons for its energy needs from a small area in the state of Brandernburg in north-east Germany.

This, as the country gears up for commercialised coal mining in the Mui Basin in Kitui County and the setting up of a controversial nuclear power plant by 2036.

The German region is home to Jänschwalde, an area devastated by decades of open cast coal mining that is only now beginning the process of reclaiming the derelict land.

Here also lies the village of Drenhow and the forested area of Lieborse, two neighbouring regions.

A visit to the area by this writer provided valuable lessons on the downside of coal mining and the direction Kenya, and indeed the world should take in reversing the atrocities humanity has inflicted on the environment for decades in the quest for power efficiency.

It is in this triangulated zone, more or less the size of the area between Limuru-Nairobi-Thika, that lies the future (the good) and the past (the bad and the ugly) of energy generation.

The area is located in Lusatia, a region known for lignite mining. Lignite, or brown coal, is still a key ingredient in Germany’s energy supply and was the power that drove much of Europe’s industrial revolution.

It is what Kenya is hoping to mine and generate electricity from in Mui in the near future after numerous delays due to the politicisation of the project.

The basin has coal deposits with an estimated value of Sh3.4 trillion ($40 billion) whose discovery was seen as a major breakthrough in making Kenya an industrial hub like Germany and other European powerhouses. 

At Jänschwalde, you can almost feel the dust in the air. For a country as green and forested as Germany, decades of destruction of the environment are palpable.

Standing on the edge of the mine, a deep, black man-made valley stretches as far as the eye can see, complete with heavy earth movers and a railway track. In the horizon, white smoke rises from five of the Jänschwalde power station’s units.

Built in the 1970s before the reunification of Germany, this power station used to pump 3,000 megawatts (MW) to the German national grid, more than 10 times the amount Olkaria pumps to Kenya’s national grid. It now generates 2,500MW after one of its units was shut down.

But Jänschwalde’s contribution to the German economy in cheap electricity comes at a cost to neighbouring villages. And none has been more hit by the effects of lignite mining than the village of Taubendorf.

Located just 200 metres from the mine, Taubendorf is literally hanging on for dear life. It stands on lignite and was to be cleared for expansion but was saved by government policies on carbon emission that forced the mining company to scale back on its plans.

Now, only a few acres of maple trees stand between it and the edge of the mine.

Besides the dusty air, sulphur and iron pollution, the mine has depleted the village’s groundwater (Germany’s water table is quite high) and residents can only get water from a station 20km away. Only 120 residents remain in this village.

Save for our host Karl Heinz, a senior resident, we see no one else in the village at the time of our visit. A noisy tractor ploughing a surrounding farm is the only other sign of life.

“The mining company refused to compensate us for the water, citing a law that provides that only those directly affected can benefit from such payouts. Unfortunately, we have to bear with this problem until 2010 when the mine will be closed. Even then, we are not sure whether the water problem will be solved,” said Heinz.

This, and or worse, is what awaits the residents of Mui in Kitui, where the Government plans to set up a 960-megawatt coal-fired power plant. Already suffering from delays, the proposed plant has caused divisions among locals, especially over fears that 100,000 residents may be displaced.

But is coal really the answer to Kenya’s electricity needs? Andreas Kraemer, an energy and climate change expert, says Kenya has got its priorities wrong, especially as it is endowed with strong winds and adequate sun all year round.

“Coal is dirty from mining to the emissions of pollutants into the air, the water and into the ground.  The emissions of dust and mercury, for instance, result in increased health costs for the population and the carbon emissions contribute to the overheating of the planet, the acidification of the ocean and sea-level rise,” says Prof Kraemer.

And Brandenburg has the alternatives to coal to boot. Across the mine, just a few kilometres from the Jänschwalde power station is the village of Drenhow and its 10.5MW wind park.

It is one of the thousands of wind farms across Germany. But unlike others where affected residents had to move to pave way for coal mining, Drenhow’s is a joint project between the community and the private investor.

Rather than move away, the residents here came together to buy the farm and lease it out to the investor who put up nine turbines on the 30-acre farm. As part of the agreement, each family in Drenhow gets Sh250,000 for their first child, and Sh125,000 for subsequent children.

This means they will earn money from the farm as long as the wind keeps blowing rather than a one-off compensation as opposed to the arrangement back here at home where disagreements on the same curtailed what was to be the first independent large-scale wind farm in East Africa.

The Kinangop wind power project became a classic case of how not to establish a multi-billion-shilling project. Projected to cost Sh15 billion and add another 60.8MW to the national grid, the project ended up in an international court after months of bloody protests by residents’ overcompensation.

All because the investor lied about its true intentions and did not involve the residents from the project’s onset.

In Drenhow, residents were involved from the onset and were given tenders to construct and maintain the farm. They are also allowed to till crops at the farm.

And then there is what used to be Germany’s largest solar power station in Lieborose.

Situated deep inside a forest on what was once a military training area, there are approximately 700,000 thin-film module solar panels on 400 acres pumping 52.7MW to the grid.

As the world moves towards renewable energy as part of curbing carbon emissions to cut global warming, Germany is a leading example of alternative forms of creating clean energy.

In the short-term, Germany aims to generate 35 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Already, 30 per cent of its electricity comes from renewable sources.

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