Climate change expert Andreas Kraemer on Kenya's options to generate cheap electricity

Climate change expert Andreas Kraemer
As Kenya bids to become a manufacturing economy, it is imperative that it boosts its national grid. But even as it moves to harness clean energy in the form of solar and wind power, it is also building a multi-billion-shilling coal plant. The Standard’s Kenneth Kipruto talked to energy and climate change expert Andreas Kraemer who is also the Founder and Director Emeritus of Ecologic Institute in Berlin, Germany, and Chairman of Ecologic Institute the US in Washington DC on Kenya’s options to generate cheap electricity.

Establishment of a manufacturing economy is one of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda. What is the best way for Kenya to generate cheap power to meet its manufacturing demand?

Solar power is the cheapest form of energy.  It comes in the form of electricity, which is the noblest form of energy because it can be converted in all other forms of energy.  The cost of solar power systems - from small, stand-alone or off-grid systems serving just one family all the way to utility-scale, solar farms have fallen consistently over the past 40 years and is projected to fall even further over the next five to seven years.  The International Renewable Energy Agency, publishes good data, as do specialist media such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Greentech Media or Utility Dive.  Power storage, which may be necessary for some industrial power users, is also becoming cheap.

Kenya boasts Africa’s largest wind farm in Lake Turkana that can inject 310 megawatts into the national grid. Is wind power really viable considering the costs of infrastructure?

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With wind power, there are two philosophies.  One is to put the wind turbines where the wind is strong and steady, and then to transport the wind power to wherever it is needed.  The other is to put the wind turbines near where the power is needed, which may lower the wind-power harvest but saves on the transmission cost.  Kenya may have moved too far in one direction, especially as the power grid has to be strengthened or even yet to be built.  Germany, which is successful in integrating solar and wind power into an electricity system designed to supply power to industry, has a mixture:  First, wind turbines were built a few at a time, village by village, and later in large wind parks, some of them off-shore in the North Sea.  The first solar panels were installed on roof-tops to supply the houses below.  Large solar farms occupying whole fields only came later.

Kenya is currently building a coal plant near Lamu, a Unesco Heritage town on the Indian Ocean. Is the coal plant viable, even though Europe is shutting down most of its coal plants?

The builders of coal-fired power plants make their profit during the building phase, and their involvement is no guarantee that the project is economically viable.  Not only in Europe, but also in the US, coal-fired power plants are being shut down, because they cannot compete with ever-cheaper solar and wind power.  China and India are also cancelling coal-fired power plants even after construction has begun.  Kenya risks being burdened by a large, costly plant that is uneconomic to run. This being quite obvious, questions should be asked about the motives of the decision-makers in government.

What lessons can Kenya learn from China on the production of coal energy and what are the possible pitfalls as well?

There are no “clean coal plants” in China or anywhere else. 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 in the region, and the carbon emissions contribute to the overheating of the planet, the acidification of the ocean, and sea-level rise.    The new coal plant would contribute to the drowning of the Lamu Archipelago by the rising sea. China is halting the building of nuclear and coal plants and is increasing the build-up of solar and wind power.    That goes hand-in-hand with a shift to electric cars. The batteries of the cars add to the power storage capacity, and this helps even out the natural fluctuations of wind and solar power.  The danger that Kenya should avoid is building a dinosaur plant that has no prospect of earning back the initial cost and would harm the health of the nation and destroy the very environment that brings in steady revenue from tourism.

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