How divisive coal power is becoming in Kenya

Coal (File, Standard)

Government agencies appear to be always pulling in the same direction or at least and disagreements never show up publicly. These tend to be sorted behind closed doors and publicly show a unified front.

It has however not been the case for the Ministry of Energy and Ministry of Environment, whose major point of disagreement has been the planned coal-fired power plant in Lamu.

The 1,050 megawatts plant set to be built by Amu Power at a cost of Sh206 billion has been demonised by the Environment Ministry as one that will destroy the environment of Lamu and the health of its people.

This will be from the emissions as well as a non-clear way of how the company will handle waste management.

The Ministry also notes that there is no shortage of alternative renewable energy sources that can be used in generating power. The spirited objection is despite the National Environment Management Authority, which falls under the Ministry, having given the coal plant the go ahead.

The Ministry of Energy feels the plant is a necessity to Kenya’s electricity generation mix to meet growing demand for power and play part in providing cheap power and replace the costly diesel generators.

The increasing unreliability of hydroelectricity following a prolonged dry spell over the last two year has given the Ministry more impetus to pursue coal power.

Public appearances

Ministry officials last week told Parliament’s Energy Committee that coal would be ideal to help the country deal with shocks experienced whenever there is a shortage of rains, adding that there are technologies that would be used to handle the emissions.

During one of her last public appearances as Cabinet Secretary at a renewable energy summit in January, Prof Judy Wakhungu put up a spirited defence on why the Environment Ministry is opposed to the coal plant.

She said the Ministry had lobbied their Energy Ministry counterparts to abandon the coal plant plans but their pleas did not please their energy colleagues.

She observed that her ministry had given advice to the Ministry of Energy against pursuing the coal-fired power plant since its early days.

Even the court cases lodged by lobbies opposed the plant.

The plant’s takeoff has also failed to mateilise. “If I give you advice, you will decide what bit you will take. From an environmental perspective there are numerous renewable energy sources,” she said.

“We have a green economy strategy and we have no mention of fossil fuel. Our advice is clear and has no mention of coal or nuclear. Our focus is renewable energy.”

Other than the environmental degradation, other arguments against the coal plant are that it would increase the installed power generating capacity substantially, a growth that does not match demand.

Kenya has an installed capacity of 2,300MW against a peak demand of 1,700MW. The end result is that Amu Power would end up getting paid whether it produces power for consumption or not.

Indeed, Treasury already plans to pay the power company Sh37 billion ($360 million) in annual fixed capacity payments over the next financial year when the first phase of the plant is expected to be completed.

The payment will be in addition to paying for electricity from the plant sold to Kenya Power. The Ministry of Energy justified the power plant with arguments that it would stabilise power supply as well as provide low-cost power to consumers.

Electricity grid

Energy Cabinet Secretary Charles Keter has severally talked of the cost savings that would accrue when the plant starts feeding electricity to the national electricity grid.

He has however failed to address concerns raised by stakeholders, including the environmental pollution as well as the supply that is not matched by demand.

Amu Power will sell electricity to Kenya Power at Sh7.50 per kilowatt hour comparable to geothermal (about Sh7) but higher than hydroelectricity (Sh3).

The company, which is a consortium of Centum, Gulf Energy and Chinese firms, has said there are technologies that can be used to produce power using coal in a manner that is less damaging to the environment.

Other than the civil society organisations that have been vocal against the plant, there have been numerous voices that note that Kenya has numerous electricity sources to explore before delving into coal.

“For a sunny and geothermally-endowed nation like Kenya, nuclear and coal power are a bad option. With the country’s other options, it doesn’t make economic or environmental sense to pursue coal-burning power stations,” said Prof Izael Da Silva, deputy vice-chancellor at Strathmore University and a renewable energy expert in a recent report.

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