NEWS June 7, 2020 — The Daily Nation (Kenya) “Covid-​​19 locks Kenya’s future in green energy”

For the orig­i­nal June 7, 2020, piece in The Daily Nation (Nairobi, Kenya), click here.


By Daniel Kam­men & Khadija Famau & Joseph Odongo
On May 28 the World Bank, Inter­na­tional Energy Agency, World Health Orga­ni­za­tion, and the Inter­na­tional Agency for Renew­able Energy all issued a joint statement.That does not hap­pen very often, and their announce­ment is big for Kenya and East Africa.
These insti­tu­tions wrote that the real les­son from Covid-​​19 is that invest­ments in renew­able energy, both for homes and busi­ness, have remained prof­itable, while those in fos­sil fuel projects have tanked. Already, nat­ural gas invest­ment world­wide lost three per cent, petro­leum four per cent, and coal is the big loser, down almost 10 per cent in the last three months, glob­ally. There are many rea­sons for this, but all clearly show that the pro­posed Lamu coal plant would be a dis­as­ter for Kenya. As Kenyans strug­gle to stay healthy and earn their daily bread, we don’t know when the health and eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion will improve. This pan­demic only adds to exist­ing chal­lenges such as food inse­cu­rity, unem­ploy­ment, elec­tric­ity out­ages, floods and locust inva­sions. A coal plant will only make us more vul­ner­a­ble.
First, coal projects are large, slow, and expen­sive, whilst the best energy options are nim­ble, scal­able, and work well with other energy sources. The pan­demic puts into sharp focus the peril of sign­ing inflex­i­ble con­tracts for large fos­sil fuel power plants such as Lamu coal.
Even before the pan­demic, coal energy didn’t make eco­nomic sense. To jus­tify Lamu coal plant, pro­po­nents argued that energy demand in Kenya will grow by 11.5 per cent to 15 per cent per year. But in real­ity Kenya’s energy demand has been grow­ing at about six per cent for over a decade. Even in 2019, The Energy and Petro­leum Reg­u­la­tory Author­ity (EPRA) con­cluded that Lamu coal plant would be “grossly under­utilised should demand grow mod­er­ately” and cause elec­tric­ity prices to “rise rapidly to reach Sh16.86/kWh by the year 2024”.
Now, any jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Lamu coal has evap­o­rated. Lamu coal plant would be left to idle — and become a dirty drag on the econ­omy for decades. This is not how Vision2030 should turn out.
Covid-​​19 is pro­foundly chang­ing the global econ­omy. When the pan­demic fades and energy demand does return, eco­nomic activ­ity will spring up in unex­pected areas and new sec­tors. Who knows what busi­nesses will sur­vive and which will change or die?
Lamu coal plant’s finan­cial oblig­a­tions and risks would bur­den the coun­try until 2045. The draft con­tracts were pub­lished on Treasury’s trans­parency web­site, reveal­ing the unfavourable terms for the Kenyan pub­lic. The project can still be eas­ily called off, but it is still in the pipeline. Why?
A coal plant won’t fix the out­ages and inter­mit­tency the coun­try faces today. Kenya already pro­duces enough elec­tric­ity to meet demand, yet these prob­lems per­sist. What we need is a bet­ter man­aged, respon­sive sys­tem that addresses prob­lems and inef­fi­cien­cies.
Renew­able energy projects pro­vide flex­i­ble energy — and rapid deploy­ment just where the nation needs it.
All this leads to a won­der­fully sim­ple and nation­ally impor­tant bottom-​​line: Solar, wind, and geot­her­mal power in Kenya are just plain less costly than coal. The coun­try has been research­ing and writ­ing about this for a long time, and now it is per­haps time to lis­ten and act. That should be the end of the argu­ment, but still some dinosaurs per­sist, largely because of back­room deals and out­dated ideas about how unre­li­able renew­able energy can be.
Kenya is the world leader today in installing the most reli­able form of renew­able energy — geot­her­mal — and there’s poten­tial for much more. Energy stor­age is now so cheap and avail­able that solar or wind plus stor­age is still cheaper than coal. And diver­si­fy­ing our renew­able sources will pro­vide us with con­tin­u­ous and afford­able elec­tric­ity. Clean and reli­able — fancy that.
All this is before we get to the long-​​term dam­age that coal will bring: envi­ron­men­tal ruin.
The coal plant would sad­dle us with unavoid­able envi­ron­men­tal and health harms, from pol­lu­tion and ecosys­tem destruc­tion. As Bitange Ndemo stated, “Stud­ies show that inhal­ing dirty air makes Covid-​​19 more lethal… There is no doubt that pol­lu­tion causes diseases.”

Coal energy already didn’t make sense. Now it’s crys­tal clear: it’s dan­ger­ous, as well as a risky invest­ment.
Lamu coal plant would also per­ma­nently dis­fig­ure one of the most beau­ti­ful and cul­tur­ally unique sea­side com­mu­ni­ties. When travel and tourism return after Covid-​​19, to have a dis­fig­ured Lamu is a sad, short-​​sighted slap in the face of every Kenyan.

There is another way. We can choose to stay on a low-​​carbon path to a future of least-​​expensive, reli­able, renew­able energy. As Pres­i­dent Keny­atta has boasted, we are already 93 per cent there.
Even as we nav­i­gate this pan­demic cri­sis, we are in con­trol of how we pur­sue eco­nomic recov­ery. We can choose to cre­ate a new nor­mal that’s bet­ter for every­one than what we had before. Reli­able clean energy and a grow­ing energy jobs sec­tor are what the nation needs and deserves.

Instead of get­ting locked into coal, let us invest in power projects that ben­e­fit local host com­mu­ni­ties and Kenya at large.
Clean energy is a win-​​win-​​win. It pro­vides us with afford­able and flex­i­ble elec­tric­ity, pro­tects our health and envi­ron­ment, and sup­ports an econ­omy that can recover to work for more Kenyans.

Daniel Kam­men is a Pro­fes­sor of Energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley where he has also served since 1999 as a Coor­di­nat­ing Lead Author for the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He has also worked in Kenya for 25 years on energy and envi­ron­men­tal projects.

Twit­ter: @dan_kammen

Khadija Shekuwe Famau is the Pro­gram Coor­di­na­tor for com­mu­nity sus­tain­able devel­op­ment orga­ni­za­tion Save Lamu and a board mem­ber of Lamu County Municipality.

Twit­ter: @SaveLamu

Joseph Odongo is the Advo­cacy and Cam­paigns Coor­di­na­tor, Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT).                                                

Twit­ter: @makodongo2

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