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Proposed Lamu coal plant viable

COMMENTARY
By Patrick Mbataru | October 12th 2016
About 70 per cent of Kenya’s energy needs are from biomass. Yet we are busy opposing the coal-fired power plant in Lamu, which in three short years, could provide 1,050 megawatts. That’s half of what we have managed to install in 52 years! PHOTO: COURTESY

Currently, South Africa’s installed power generation capacity is about 40,000 megawatts. Kenya, another African powerhouse, produces a measly 2,300 megawatts.

About 70 per cent of Kenya’s energy needs are from biomass. Yet we are busy opposing the coal-fired power plant in Lamu, which in three short years, could provide 1,050 megawatts. That’s half of what we have managed to install in 52 years!

I have been considering both sides of the debate. Its opponents complain of mainly three things: Economic viability, environmental degradation and land dispossession. However, going through the plant’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment Study, the thing will not have adverse impact as portrayed by its opponents.

On economic viability, critics say Kenya is quite far from producing coal. This is true. But it is important to delink the Lamu plant from coal production in Kenya. For one, no one knows quantitatively how much coal there is in Kenya.

In fact, preliminary studies show that whatever coal there is in Kenya is likely to have high ash and sulphur content. As a precautionary measure, the Lamu power plant is designed to use coal from different sources, including our own.

Further, infrastructure from the Mui Basin to Lamu is non-existent. A railway line from Kitui to Lamu (a 300-kilometre distance in a straight line) would cost about $2.4 billion at the rate of $8 million per kilometre, if we take the Mombasa–Nairobi SGR cost for yard stick.

This would mean the coal plant project would cost about $4.4 billion. Supporters say that we need cheaper power urgently. The economy is currently sluggish, thanks to the rising political monkeying.

It will pick up next year, bar unforeseen circumstances. We need cost-effective power to catapult this economy to the next level. Energy economists say current power generation regimes are comparatively uneconomical. Thermal power costs about Sh20 per kilowatt, hydropower about Sh10, wind about Sh11, solar about Sh12 and geothermal about Sh9.

All these have other disadvantages, including social costs like displacement of persons in the case of wind and hydro power plants. One megawatt of solar power requires about four acres of land to produce.

Now, coal power costs Sh7.50 per kilowatt, imported coal or not. About importing coal, it will be a government-to-government deal, meaning fewer rent seekers (or am I being naïve...?) Economists in the project say the cost of importing coal will be a pass-through cost (in form of a standing charge).

Pollution is often blown out of proportion. Deadly biomass and motor vehicle fumes will kill us quicker than emissions from a modern coal plant. Experts on the Lamu coal plant say it will have the tallest stack (chimney) in the sub-Sahara. Environment impact models of anticipated gasses from the plant show harmless concentrations dispersing into the atmosphere.

A modern coal plant, analyst say, has little hazardous waste if mitigation measures are applied correctly and effectively. Fly ash and bottom ash can be used for making cement, gypsum and superior tarmac compared to conventional material.

The land question around mega projects in Kenya is primarily a political one. Critics of the Lamu project paint a typical Kenyan scene. Special interests contrive and push a project through Government woodwork.

They cut tender deals, acquire large tracts of community land through questionable transactions and influence the Government to procure it for their project. The individuals then quickly exit after collecting rent. They manufacture another project where the cycle is repeated. In Lamu, land whose market value is perhaps Sh50,000 per acre is said to have suddenly shot to Sh800,000 per acre.

That is how, critics say, we have lost the plot to Tanzania and other countries that have more investor favourable environments for large projects. Opponents are right in some way; land issues around projects should be thrashed out before a project is implemented.

People have rights to resources around them. But the $8 Million (Sh800 million) set for land compensation in Lamu is enough to make some heads go gaga overnight. But no one, the UN, World Bank, AfDB wants to touch a project with unresolved social issues.

In short, why would one oppose a power project that would in one fell swoop add half the current capacity into the system? In fact, it will take a relatively shorter period (four years) to complete, compared to other energy ventures. Geothermal and hydroelectric plants take not less than five years to develop and only add bits of power (40 megawatts, 70 megawatts, 100 megawatts) into the system. Nuclear will take forever!

Do those who oppose the plant have this information or see the big picture? Maybe or maybe not. But we are an opposition and litigation-crazy society. It is a career for some. Investors do not want to put money in a project if they know it may be jeopardised by court injunctions. However, we must look at the bigger picture.

We have a serious power shortage. We need this plant like yesterday. Why not have one mega step into power self-sufficiency through this coal plant?

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