By HENRY OWINO (Senior Science Correspondent)

Coal burning is the number one source of air pollution worldwide. The true cost of coal is destruction at every step- damaging people’s health through air pollution, using up and polluting scarce water resources and contributing to the climate crisis.

The Kenya Government ambitious coal project in Coastal and Eastern regions of Kenya is anticipated to destroy mangrove forests and local livelihoods, in ecologically rich areas of Lamu and Kitui.

Furthermore Lamu town is even recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the oldest and best preserved example of a Swahili settlement in East Africa.

Kenyans at loggerheads over coal plant in Lamu

The $2 billion coal power plant majority financed by Chinese firms alongside a Kenyan consortium has drawn protests since its inception. Environmentalists claiming coal has no place in a country that already develops most of its energy from hydroelectric and geothermal power.

Even though President Uhuru Kenyatta had announced government plans to move the country to 100% green energy by 2020, it might not come to pass. Already some 975 acres of land had been set aside for the project, which was expected to generate 1,050 megawatts of power upon completion.

Environmentalists argue that combustion of coal emits harmful gases such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and acid type gases such as hydrogen chloride, which have been linked to smog in cities, acid rain and general health issues.

“The combustion of coal energy also emits carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Even with so many harmful side-effects, the world continues to get large amount of its energy from burning coal. But times are changing.

Coal emits the most carbon per unit of energy of any fossil fuel. If climate catastrophe is to be avoided, most of the world’s remaining coal reserves will need to be left in the ground.” said Mohamed Mbwana, Vice Chair of NGO, Save Lamu.

Youth carry a container indicating coal kills 

The prospects for this are different depending where you look. In Asia, where rapidly urbanizing countries seek cheap energy, coal demand has spiked. In the US, coal has been on its way to obsolescence for three decades.

In Africa, coal mining is expanding at rapid rate with countries like Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa leading.

Coal is classed as a non-renewable energy that gets its name from the fact that once it has been used and burnt as coal energy, it is gone for good, it cannot be “renewed”. Over time, the Earth’s supply of coal will eventually run out, but right now, large amounts are still available to us.

For example, since 2010, the number of coal-fired power plants in the US has dropped from 580 to 350. At its peak, in 1923, there were 883,000 employees in the coal industry. Today, there are 53,000 or even less workers as we speak.

Again by law, after the coal has been extracted, the open pit should be backfilled with the earth previously removed and subsequently reclaimed or restored back to its original contour.

Greenpeace and environmental activists protest in Nairobi against the coal plant in Lamu

In addition, the mining companies are supposed to replant trees and grass to restore its appearance within the landscape, which always doesn’t happen, leaving an ugly scar on the landscape.

The Coastal Kenya, Lamu plant has a design life of at least 30 years. There is a risk that the Lamu coal plant could become a financial liability sooner than 2050, perhaps much sooner. Coal-fired electricity was the engine of economic growth in the 20th century, but for a variety of reasons, it’s unlikely to power the 21st.

Critics argue that the combination of increasing global concern of climate change and the dropping costs of zero-carbon energy technologies presents a risk that the Lamu Coal Plant could become a stranded asset.

Kenya has abundant solar, geothermal, and other energy resources that, thanks to technological and financial innovations, are now cheaper than coal. Compared to coal, renewable energy sources such as solar, geothermal, and wind, have lower total costs, less long-term risk, and greater potential to power Kenya’s sustainable economic development.

The climate change costs of coal will only increase in the coming years while innovation is driving the price of renewables down.  In fact, the price of renewable energy is now competitive with fossil fuels.

It seems reasonable to expect declines in Kenya’s solar prices, even if less dramatic than those in India. Electricity from the 50 MW solar PV project in Garissa, Northern Kenya is priced at US$0.12/kWh.

The feed-in tariff for geothermal projects is US $0.09 /kWh and the 310 MW Lake Turkana Wind project is priced at just US$0.08/kWh. It is just a fraction of a cent above the price of coal-fired electricity and much less of the coal’s total cost when pollution is included.

Although wind and solar are intermittent resources and more difficult to integrate into the grid, geothermal provides base-load power which is more reliable energy source that isn’t affected by factors like weather conditions.

These technologies are pollution-free and do not depend on fuel imports. Advances in energy storage are also making higher penetrations of solar and wind more feasible.

Kenya Police Officer quelling protesters within Nairobi CBD

It is for these reasons that Greenpeace Africa partnered with other environmentalist activists demanding a stop to coal investments in Kenya.

Communities from Lamu and Kitui led by Greenpeace Africa and members of the DeCOALonize coalition picketed in the streets of Nairobi and later handed over letters to the Ministry of Energy and the Chinese Embassy.

The letters call on the line Cabinet Secretary, Charles Keter and Chinese Corporations to stop investing in Lamu and Kitui coal projects and instead invest in renewable energy.

The anti- coal activists marched from Uhuru Park to Nyayo house where the Ministry of Energy is housed and then advanced to the Chinese Embassy to express their discontent over the planned Coal Power Plant in Lamu and coal mining in Kitui.

“Our cultural heritage and livelihoods are threatened. The Lamu coal plant will ruin tourism and Lamu Old Town, destabilizing the county’s economy and the environment. Our people will face the most health risks from this plant. The government must prioritize protection of local communities and the environment,” said Mbwana, Vice Chair of NGO, Save Lamu.

Lamu residents protest about Coal-Plant

“There is no need to build centralized dirty sources of energy such as coal to answer to Kenya’s energy demands especially when the country is taking the lead in Africa with 85% renewable energy base.

With access to wind, solar, geo-thermal and tidal energy sources, Kenya’s renewable energy potential is cost efficient and causes no harm to the people and environment,” said Omar Elmawi, DeCOALonize Campaign Coordinator.

According to Frederick Njehu, Greenpeace Africa’s Senior Political Advisor, climate crisis remains one of the biggest challenges facing humankind. Throughout the world, countries including China, directly linked to the project are divesting from coal. Studies have shown that the social, environmental and economic cost of running coal fired power plants exceeds the benefits.

“Climate crisis has crippling effects to developing economies; fossils fuels such as coal exacerbate these effects. Kenya cannot afford to ignore this anymore. It’s time to quit plans for dirty, highly polluting coal and invest in renewable energy,” said Mr. Njehu.

Kenya currently produces more energy than it uses. However, electricity access to urban, peri-urban and rural communities is still limited due to a centralized energy system.

In the meantime, the activists demand on President Kenyatta to halt all investments towards coal in Kenya as a way of solidarity with communities affected.

Kenya Police Officer argues with a woman protester

Kenyan judges at the National Environmental Tribunal on Tuesday 25 June, 2019 said concerned officials had failed to conduct a thorough assessment of the plant’s impact on Lamu. The tribunal canceled the license issued by the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) and ordered developer Amu Power to undertake a new evaluation.

The environmental court also faulted the Chinese-backed power plant for failing to adequately consult the public about the initiative, and cited insufficient and unclear plans for handling and storing toxic coal ash.

“It really is a great day for the people of Lamu,” said Mark Odaga, a lawyer with nonprofit group Natural Justice. “Theirs was a cry for their voices to be heard, for their concerns to be reflected so that this wasn’t a situation of people being anti-development.”

While the latest verdict delays the coal plant’s development, it doesn’t put an end to it. Amu Power can still apply for a new license or appeal the decision within the next month. For now, though, local communities are celebrating the win.

The ruling was a win for environmental activists and local communities, who for three years argued the coal plant, would not only pollute the air but also damage the fragile marine ecosystem and devastate the livelihoods of fishing communities.