Why Coal? Why Now?

Michael Onsando
13 June ,2017

There’s a story somewhere about about a child who was watching their mum cook. “Mum,” the child asked, “Why do we always throw out the liver?” The mother had not really given it much thought. Only when asked did she realise that she only did it because she had seen her mother do it. Next time she went to see her mother she asked “mum, why do we throw out the liver?” Her mother laughed, “I don’t know why you do it, but your father hated eating it.”

This story exists in many variations – many of us have heard a form of it (I only ask that you critique my telling lightly, I never really listened that well). But the story does remind me about the need to question my actions – why am I doing this? Does this add up? Is this the best thing to do in the circumstances? Or am I just doing this because it is a thing that continues to happen?

Of course the ability to ask why comes from the ability to put many things off. It comes from the ability to say, let’s ignore the fact that coal is one of the major contributors to climate change. Or let’s forget that burning coal has adverse effects on the nervous system. We can even ignore the fact that the world is steadily moving away from coal. All valid reasons to stop and question.

But why do we need this power plant?

And this question is important because when Caroline Mutoko put a video on Facebook asking the president to name the train – he did it. Still, somehow, the government acts like it hasn’t seen any of the several pieces (or dedicated twitter page, website, hashtag). It could be argued that the power plant itself is a private venture, and hence the government isn’t heavily involved. But what’s the work of the government if not to ask this question? What do we need this power for?

The reasoning behind the need for power makes sense. With the rural electrification program in high gear (ahem… ), the government would like to stay ahead of the demand curve. Most new users on the grid have really low consumption. This means that if even half of the new users added a single electrical appliance to their daily use it would double the consumption of all the new users. This, when matched with GDP growth means an exponential increase in demand.

But what does meeting the demand in this way mean?

India recently commissioned a solar plant whose current output is 900MW. It cost half the price of what we are paying for the coal plant. Given, Solar energy is not a base load supplier (i.e it cannot be generated 24 hours a day) and the cost of batteries on that scale might tip the cost. So what about geothermal energy? We currently put out 493MW of a potential 7000 – 10,000MW. Is the government really saying that the risk around coal is easier that cleaning up the Geothermal Development Company? Given, the president gave some orders and fired some people in 2015, but is there actual working to fixing the systemic barriers towards efficient generation of geothermal power?

I ask because, launching the project in 2012, former president Kibaki urged residents not to allow themselves to be misguided by people that may be opposed to the project. These people, he said, are just outside forces that do not care about the people of Lamu. The implication of this statement is that the people should listen to him (and, by extension the office of the president). The implication of this being that the office of the president cares about the people of Lamu and is looking out for their best interests.

I am in no way interested in challenging this.

In fact, I agree. The president, elected by the people, is their ultimate representative. He must care for their needs. Which makes me wonder what needs are being cared for here? And what does care look like? Does it look like the Energy Regulatory Commision rejecting the efforts of a community based group to stop the project? Does it look like repeatedly breaching protocol in the tender process?

The whole world is moving away from coal.

Again we find ourselves in a situation where we do not have to make our own mistakes to learn – the world has made them for us. People have learned that mining and burning coal is not only damaging to the environment but to the people who live around coal mines as well. Yet somehow we insist on going into the past as opposed to laying groundwork to create a better future. It’s this kind of thinking that bought the country “new” trains that move at 120Kph in a world where they can move at thrice that speed.

Facts are stubborn. According to national geographic:

“This comes at a time when China and India, which accounted for 86 percent of global coal development over the last decade, are putting coal projects on hold at record rates due to existing overcapacity, the lowering cost of renewables, and crippling pollution that is thought to kill more than a million people a year in the case of China alone. Many of the world’s more developed countries are also in the process of phasing out the fuel as a power source.”

So again I ask – Why coal? Why Lamu? Why now?

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