Alternatives for coal energy in Kenya after the collapse of Lamu Coal Plant

16 May, 2021

Written by Steve Otieno

UPDATE: Since the writing of this piece, we learned that ICBC pulled out of the Lamu coal-fired power project.

Since residents of the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu won their fight against a new coal plant, the government seems to be making small steps towards a more efficient and sustainable energy future. 

The Lamu Coal plant was first presented back in 2013, with plenty of goodwill from the State and several international investors. Among them was the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), seen as a key building block for a new manufacturing hub in Kenya. 

However, the project collapsed last year after meeting heavy resistance from both the locals and lobby groups. The groups’ demands were simple: they were not against development in principle, but they did want a cleaner investment that would not adversely affect their health and habitat.

“We understand the government is doing its best to bring industrialisation, that it is more than ready to pump billions in this Coal project. What we are saying is, we need to be brought on board so that we give our opinion on this issue. Coal is dangerous, it has serious carbon dioxide emissions that can hurt us if not controlled,” told a 45-year-old resident who sought anonymity.

When the contractor of the Coal Plant, Amu Power Company, later began construction without involving the locals, the residents protested more vehemently and resultantly went to court in November 2016.

They not only went to Court to seek stay orders but also the total suspension of the entire project. 

Though Amu Power claims they had attempted to enhance effective public participation through the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), the residents still felt like they were being sidelined and were against their land being used for the coal project.

Two and a half years later, the Court Tribunal vindicated the perplexed and troubled Lamu residents when it faulted Amu Power’s move to implement the Coal Project without adequately engaging the Lamu residents. This ruling effectively stopped the Coal Project and, shortly after, the financiers seemingly walked away. 

Several environmentalists lauded the Court’s ruling. Over the past two decades, the country engaged in serious debate regarding the efficacy and sustainability of fossil fuels. During this period, experts have championed the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. 

Mohamed Adow, a renowned Kenyan climate policy expert and founder of Power Shift Africa, is one of the vocal professionals calling for a rethink on fossil fuels dependency. He is one of the two awardees of this year’s Climate Breakthrough Award.

Mr. Adow is greatly opposed to the ideology that the only way for Africa to develop is through huge amounts of fossil fuels.

“One of the biggest lies is that the only way for Africa to develop is to burn fossil fuel. The result will be stranded assets and climate destruction, not prosperity,” he opined in a national newspaper in Kenya.

He commends the youth for piling pressure on financial institutions to stop financing new fossil fuel projects. Unlike ICBC, which was set to invest more than $1.2 billion US dollars in the Lamu Coal plant, other financial institutions like Barclays, Credit Suisse and the African Development Bank have committed not to fund coal projects going forward. 

Since 2013, the Kenyan Government has struggled to build on its renewable energy portfolio and has seen a steady increase in its reliance on coal and coke to electrify the country. From the government’s perspective, it seems the times may finally be changing, as it hopes a new strategic plan developed last year may provide the boost it needs. 

The Ministry of Energy Cabinet Secretary, Charles Keter admitted recently that whereas there has been a public campaign championing renewables since the early 2000s, the motivation, expertise and finances required have simply not been forthcoming. 

“This necessitated the development of a robust plan of action to optimize energy efficiency and conservation gains in the country. The Kenya National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy (NEECS) is the roadmap towards achieving energy efficiency goals that will have an overall positive impact on Kenya’s economy,” Mr Keter said.

In December 2019, Kenya bought a new 50 MW solar plant in its ambitious plans to increase electricity generation and enlarging the country’s power supply.

Whereas Solar energy may account for barely 2 percent of current power output, such investments show a positive trend which, if continually done will reduce reliance on fossil fuels. 

The government has committed to endeavor in seeking cleaner energy sources which, when enforced, will lock out fossil fuels investments such as the Lamu Coal Plant.

“Improving energy efficiency will help reduce the demand for fossil fuels and related greenhouse gas emissions. It will also enhance the potential of renewable energy sources to meet a larger portion of the country’s energy needs,” the Energy CS concluded.  

However, residents of Lamu remain apprehensive about their future, and whether they will again have to fight against new coal projects, or if they will ever receive the promises of jobs and a brighter future that were made to them.

About the author

Stephen “Steve” Otieno Oketch, Kenya 

Steve is an investigative reporter at Daily Nation newspaper, owned by the Nation Media Group in Kenya. His favourite thing about being a reporter is discovering secrets and making them known to the public.

He was a finalist at the 9th Annual Journalism Excellency Awards (AJEA) in Kenya and placed 2nd  in the Governance category in this year’s AJEA. Stephen is looking forward to linking human rights throughout his stories.

This story was made possible through the support of Climate Tracker.