February 27, 2018 Read More →

Kenya at an Energy Crossroads As It Considers Chinese-Backed Coal Plant

New York Times:

Across a narrow channel from this historic port town, where baobabs tower over the forest and tiny crabs skitter in and out of the mangroves, Kenya could soon get its first coal-fired power plant, courtesy of China.

The plan’s champions, including senior Kenyan officials, say the plant will help meet the country’s fast-growing demand for electricity and draw investment. Its critics worry that it will damage the area’s fragile marine ecosystem, threaten the livelihoods of fishing communities and pollute the air.

The battle over the project, which is frozen pending the outcome of a court case, reverberates far beyond Lamu, a 700-year-old Indian Ocean port town of coral-lime houses and carved wooden doors that has been designated a Unesco world heritage site.

The plan embodies a contradiction of Chinese global climate leadership: The country’s huge coal sector is turning outward in search of new markets as coal projects contract at home. A Chinese multinational is tapped to build the $2 billion, 975-acre project, and a Chinese bank is helping to finance it. The project is among hundreds of coal-fired power plants that Chinese companies are helping to build or finance around the world.

It represents a test for Kenya as well. While its leaders describe the Lamu plant as a source of cheap, reliable electricity, the country is also seeking to become a renewable energy hub, with huge solar and wind projects in the works and a promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

Coal could upend those goals.

“I see no reason for them to do it,” said Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Program, which is based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. “They should invest heavily in hydro, solar, wind. They are already, but they could do even more.”

Not least, Mr. Solheim said in an interview, the rapidly falling price of renewable energy sources makes a coal-fired power project “much less viable.”

The port town of Lamu, established in the 14th century within an archipelago of small islands near Somalia, is among the oldest continually inhabited places on Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. Arab traders sailed here in their wooden dhows on their way south to Zanzibar. They brought dates and steel utensils from Arabia; they took back mangrove logs and cowrie shells.

All morning long, along the old town seafront, men unload mangrove logs and palm fronds. Fishers bring in their catches. No cars are allowed in the old town. The only taxis in its narrow lanes are donkeys. The once-thriving tourism industry has shrunk sharply because of a series of attacks by the Somalia-based terrorist group known as the Shabab.

To get to the coal plant site from Lamu town, you have to hire a boat to cross the channel and then drive along a sandy path. Cashews grow amid the wilderness. There are patches of sesame, kitchen gardens of watermelon and papaya, and a lot of uncertainty in the air. No one here has seen a coal plant before. No one really knows how it will affect them.

Shebwana Mohammed, an 18-year-old who was riding his bicycle near the project site, said he felt a mixture of worry and hope. “If it comes with a job I’m ready to take it,” he ventured.

An older man, Mohammed Shee, who grows cassava and cashews on the edges of the plant site, said he had lost a few trees when the road was built. He didn’t know what to make of the project, though he said he worried about the forest. “If the trees dry up how will a farmer survive?” he wondered aloud.

Whether Kenya needs coal-fired electricity is a matter of dispute, with some energy analysts concluding that wind and geothermal sources could generate enough electricity and be more cost-effective.

Then, there is the matter of where the coal would come from. The plant developer, a Kenyan consortium called Amu Power, plans to import coal initially; only later would a Kenyan coal mine, far in the country’s interior, come online.

The environment secretary at the Kenyan Environment Ministry, Alice Akinyi Kaudia, was skeptical of the project’s utility, saying that it would be “counterproductive” to her country’s commitment to reduce emissions under the Paris climate accord.

More:  Why Build Kenya’s First Coal Plant? Hint: Think China

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