At what cost will Lamu coal power plant be to Man and sea?
If you walk along the Lamu waterfront, with its newly cobbled street under your feet and the arresting view of dhows bobbing in the waves, you might get distracted by the sight of a boy washing a goat at the jetty.
Just the one goat, separated from its herd, being subjected to a thorough scrubbing by a pre-adolescent who pays no mind to the fast clicking of your camera.
It is surreal, but strangely not out of place.
The town itself seems frozen in the past by the powers of a nostalgic djinn, a past where old Swahili architecture with its abundance of inner courtyards, grand wooden carved doors and flat rooftops is yet to be replaced by modern skyscrapers, and where you are more likely to be run over by a donkey than by anything on wheels.
Lamu Old Town, “the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa”, is a Unesco World Heritage site.
But change is coming, even to this sleepy island town, whose biggest selling point as a major tourist attraction is its distance from the pressures of modern life.
For in the narrow, winding streets of Lamu Town, where no car can fit, the donkeys have started to give way to motorbikes.
The motorbikes, however, are just a small sign of even more ominous changes on the way, because Lamu is caught in the middle of a high-stakes debate whose outcome has the capacity to threaten its very existence.
Kenya is about to make an important decision about its future.
On the one hand, the country has an option to stick to its renewable energy resources and abide by the Paris Agreement of 2015 that committed countries to reducing carbon emissions in order to arrest and eventually reverse the debilitating effects of climate change.
And, on the other hand, the country, already an East African powerhouse, is chomping at the bit, raring to exponentially grow its industries and transition into a middle income economy by the year 2030.
And, to do this, the people who wrote the country’s development blueprint believe Kenya must turn its back on the climate change agreement it signed and fire up a coal power plant that will meet the energy needs of its future.
And Lamu archipelago, the lovely Unesco heritage site on the shores of the Indian Ocean, is at the grand stage where this big economic revolution is supposed to be powered from.
Some energy experts have warned that the Lamu coal plant will be Kenya’s most expensive white elephant, costing the country Sh36 billion in capacity charge, whether the country uses the power it generates or not.
If the plant takes off, it will generate some 1,050MW, nearly half of the current installed power capacity.
The question is, does the country need this extra power, and is coal the right fuel to generate it?
There are two ways to get to the site of the proposed coal power plant; you either rent a speedboat from Lamu Town and brave a 45-minute ride through sometimes choppy waters, or you cross over to the mainland on a small dhow then hire a car to Kwasasi, which takes about an hour.
The site itself is bare. Work on the plant was supposed to begin in 2015, but it never took off, derailed by a tedious land acquisition process and, more recently, a court case by activist group Save Lamu, who want to stop the plant, citing grave environmental and social effects associated with similar plants in other parts of the world.
Amu Power, the private consortium made up of Kenyan and Chinese companies that own the project, declined to grant us an interview, citing a gag order by the National Environment Tribunal.
Save Lamu, however, has plenty to say on the matter.
On the day we meet him, Walid Ahmed Ali, founder of Lamu Youth Alliance, one of the activist groups that form Save Lamu, is in a black T-Shirt with the words “deCOALonize Lamu” printed boldly on the front.
He has spent the past several years raising awareness among the local community about “the evils of coal” and is positive that his activism has finally started to bear fruit.
“By our estimates, 75 per cent of the residents of Lamu are against coal, especially after we showed them footage of how devastating a similar plant has been in South Africa,” he says.
A 2015 report by environment lobby Greenpeace Africa stated that South Africa’s 16 coal-fired plants caused 2,700 premature deaths every year from the toxicity of their emissions.
In Kenya, the lobby group has warned that the death toll from the Lamu plant alone might be 1,600 a year.
But the intellectual arguments that mark this conversation do not make a lot of sense for many of Lamu’s residents, whose daily lives are not marked by what outsiders have been led to believe is a raging debate about the viability of Lamu once the coal plant breaks ground.
Few can fully articulate the controversies surrounding the plant, and even fewer understand what it might mean to have a coal plant in their backyards.
This is not surprising, as Lamu has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the country.
Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that only 13 per cent of Lamu residents have a secondary education and above, and only 54 per cent have finished primary school, far below the national average of 81 per cent in 2016.
The local economy is therefore driven by informal jobs in fishing, tourism and agriculture, the very industries that face threat should the coal plant be given the green light.
Mzee Mohamed Kasri says all he is interested in is the payout from the government for his land.
The 65-year-old coconut seller is among farmers from Kwasasi, whose land has been tagged for this project.
Surveyors and prospectors four years ago promised they would pay Sh1.2 million per acre, but have since revised the price downwards to Sh800,000, much to the consternation and disappointment of the land owners.
“Five acres of my land is up for sale to Amu Power and I am anxiously waiting for them to finalise the process,” Kasri says.
“As long as the sale hangs over it, I cannot farm as I have no idea when they will come calling; so I have not grown anything on it for over four years, and I am forced to rely on the small income I make from selling coconuts.”
He is not overly concerned about the political debate surrounding the plant because, he says, it is a done deal.
“Does it matter whether we support it or not? The government has already signed off on it.
“You cannot fight the government and win. I will take whatever money I am offered for my land and try to make the best out of it.”
But even though many residents cannot fully articulate the effects that the coal plant might have on the island’s environment, some have listened to enough anti-coal activists to worry about what will happen to their livelihoods once the plant is in operation.
Ali Msuo is a veteran fisherman who has worked this trade since the colonial government was in power.
At 72, he is still sprightly and light on his feet, able to make elegant dives to the bottom of the ocean to fish for lobster.
He catches them with a hand-held net or a spear. You have to be fast. Ali is fast. And has decades of experience.
But like so many fishermen in and around the Lamu archipelago, this father of 12 has noticed that the ocean is not as bountiful as before, and that it takes longer time and greater distances to catch even a fraction of what he used to.
“Before, I could fish over 100 kilogrammes of lobster a day. It seemed limitless.
“Today, however, I am lucky if I catch even one kilogramme in the old fishing grounds. You have to go to the deep sea for a decent catch, and I am too old to do that now,” Msuo says.
Overfishing and destruction of fish breeding grounds due to harmful harvest techniques have led to massive decline in fish populations.
The fear is that the coal plant will make things worse, killing the little that’s left and making it difficult for fish repopulation in the region.
The plant’s Environmental Impact Assessment report, given the green light by the National Environmental Management Agency (Nema), has been found “not credible” by independent environmentalists who have reviewed it.
Dr John Musingi, a senior lecturer and programme coordinator of environmental planning and management at the University of Nairobi, says there are yawning gaps that will cost the country greatly in terms of environmental pollution and the associated social problems that are bound to accompany it.
“The effects of these gases will be felt away from the plant site when they descend from the 210-metre stack down to ground surface,” Dr Musingi says in a report.
“The known health impacts of flue gases are eye damage, breathing problems, renal problems, effects on nervous system, pulmonary effects, cardiovascular diseases, and potential for cancer.”
He points out that studies on coal-fired power plants around the world show an increase in hospital admissions for patients with flue gases related ailments.
“The ‘Polluter pays principle’ states that those who cause pollution must be responsible for its abatement and its consequences as well.
“This is in our environmental law and also part of global best practices in dealing with pollution,” he says.
Amu has made no provision for the building of a hospital to cater for these inevitable illnesses.
And Dr Isaac Kalua, the man at the helm of Kenya Water Towers Agency, is worried about the future of the ecological wonders that are the forests in Lamu.
As Kenya grapples with drastically reduced forest cover which has caused rising temperature and failing rains, it has never been more important to preserve the trees that we already have.
“Lamu has a magnificent unmatched ecological infrastructure with its 33.9 per cent forest cover one of the richest in the country.
“It is also home to 70 per cent of Kenya’s mangrove trees. This coal plant will become the biggest polluter in the country and it will threaten the existence of these important water towers,” Dr Kalua says.
In his opinion, individuals at Nema tasked with safekeeping the country’s environment have failed by okaying a project that, he says, threatens the livelihoods and the very lives of the people in Lamu.
“Yes, we want development. But at what cost?” he poses.
For now, the only thing standing between Kenya and the coal plant in Lamu is a decision by the National Environment Tribunal, which is expected in late May.
The world is slowly moving away from coal, and Kenya is at an important crossroad in deciding whether it will buck that trend, or it will prefer to chart its own path in the global energy race.
In Kenya’s Vision 2030, listed prominently on the list of projects is an ambitious goal; that Kenya needs to generate and distribute 23,000MW of power to achieve the country’s industrialisation goals.
Kenya currently has a power capacity of around 2,500MW, which means it needs to generate almost 10 times more to meet the power needs outlined in Vision 2030.
An insider who was one of the core team that designed Vision 2030, and who spoke to the Daily Nation on condition of anonymity, said Kenya’s current energy resources — geothermal, hydro, solar and wind — will not take us across that finish line.
“Practically speaking, a country that hopes to industrialise by 2030 has to up its power supply.
“We shall not get there by relying on the resources that we already have. New sources of power are needed, and coal makes sense from an economic and efficiency point of view,” he said, adding that coal remains one of the fastest and cheapest sources of energy whose potential Kenya has left untapped.
“As our economy grows, diversifies and becomes more intensive in terms of manufacturing, our power needs will increase.
“Those who argue that we currently have more power than we need are myopic; in a few years’ time, refusing to diversify and intensify our sources of power will derail our development, and we will be unable to reach the lofty goals outlined in the Vision 2030 document,” he says.
While acknowledging that it is possible that Kenya could continue to exploit its renewable energy resources, especially geothermal, to get the required capacity, he also argued that it would take too long to realise the necessary demand without turning to biofuels.
“By 2030, there will be around 60 million of us living in this country and majority of that population will be young people who need jobs.
“If we don’t create opportunities for them in industries, these will be a generation of lost, angry people.
“A ticking time bomb. We therefore don’t have the luxury to wait until later to power up job-providing industries,” he says.
Dr Julius Muia, who served as the most recent director-general of Vision 2030 and is now the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Planning, believes coal is a good idea for Kenya.
“Climate change has made hydropower an unreliable source; our dams are drying up as rains fail.
“Solar and wind technologies are still in their infancy stages and both resources are reliant on weather elements.
“That leaves geothermal, which we have been at the forefront of exploiting.
“But the going has been slow, we have only been able to add about 100MW of geothermal power a year to the national grid. Coal, when pitted against these factors, makes the best sense,” he said.
He added that the kind of technology envisioned for this project would put to bed any environmental concerns.
“Many of those that object to using coal think of it as dirty. But the technology we are getting reduces emissions drastically, is sophisticated and efficient, and therefore will not harm the environment,” he says.
The Lamu plant will use supercritical technology, which significantly reduces the harmful carbon, nitrogen and sulphur oxides emissions associated with coal plants.
This kind of technology, although a step up from the notorious pollutant that is its predecessor, the sub-critical power plant, is however not the most advanced.
The world is rapidly transitioning to ultra supercritical, which promises even lower rates of emissions.
Lamu, according to Dr Muia, makes sense as the site of this coal plant.
“We are building a new city in Lamu that will accommodate around one million people.
“That, combined with the port and the special economic zone, will require a lot of energy. It therefore makes sense to have the plant in Lamu as power from far incurs transmission losses,” he said.
But not everyone is buying these arguments and Hindpal Jabbal, an energy expert and a former chairman of the Energy Regulatory Commission, is one of them.
Jabbal says Kenya’s power demands are modest compared to what Vision 2030 officials have led us to believe.
In several opinion articles in this paper and others over the years, Jabbal has been breaking down the projected demand in 2030, taking into account the big flagship government projects that have been passed as energy guzzlers.
LAST MILE PROJECT
He says that demand and economic growth have been grossly inflated by the government, which has used it as justification for expanding Kenya’s power supplies and adding to the national grid.
Per 2015 estimates, Kenya’s power demand in 2030 will be 5,700MW and not the 23,000MW stated in the Vision 2030 document, he says.
This, he adds, renders the 1,050MW supposed to come from the Lamu plant unnecessary, and expensive.
He argues that even the ambitious last mile project, which has seen over two million households connected to the grid, has only increased power consumption by a slight percentage.
“The Lamu coal plant, which will cost in the region of Sh200 billion if installed within the next 15 years, will attract about Sh36 billion per year in idle capacity charges for a long time.
“This is a huge economic waste which will be borne by taxpayers,” he says.
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