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Is Kenya turning away from renewable energy?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 24 Oct 2013 15:00 GMT
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A man stands near a solar panel which powers a borehole well in Kenya. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Geoffrey Kamadi
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Recently the Kenyan government put out a tender for the construction of a 1,000 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power station. That might seem odd for a country that boasts the most progressive policy - and achievements - on renewable energy in the East African region.

But why is it happening? And what does that mean for development of renewable energy in the country?

In line with the country’s aspiration to become a middle-income nation by 2030, it formulated a blueprint called Vision 2030. Among the crucial sectors targeted for strategic development was energy. Consequently, a document named the “least cost power development plan” (LCPDP) was drafted to steer the energy sector towards achieving Vision 2030 goals.

The plan forecasts that electricity demand will rise from about 7,296 gigawatt hours (GWh) annually to about 91,946 GWh by 2030 – a more than 12-fold rise. Geothermal power, with an estimated output of 26 percent of that total, is targeted as the main energy source for the country, followed by nuclear power (19 percent), coal (13 percent), imports (9 percent), wind energy (9 percent) and hydro (5 percent). The rest – nearly 20 percent - is expected to be covered by diesel and gas turbines.

While the report is updated annually to take into account changing trends and forecasts, one source of energy seems to have been largely forgotten:  solar.

It’s commendable that geothermal energy has been prioritised. But it’s hard to see how Kenya will obtain 19 percent of its energy from nuclear power given the worldwide decline in appetite for nuclear energy since the 2011 Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan.

The large-scale investment required – coupled with a lack of investor interest - may force the government to review its forecast for nuclear energy. In such a scenario, where would it turn to fill the gap?

THE TEMPTATION OF COAL

The easiest and most tempting option would be coal, since Kenya now has proven deposits that could run the country for quite a while. Politicians in potential coal mining areas have already started making mining and power stations a strategic interest.

Another easy source of stop-gap energy would be oil-driven power production, due to oil reserves in the north.

Or the shortfall could be met through imports, including from the Gibe hydropower project in Ethiopia. But importing energy can leave a nation exposed to regional geo-politics.

In a world where fossil fuel use – the major driver of climate change - is becoming increasingly controversial, future plans would ideally drive economies towards much greener and sustainable energy systems.

But developing countries are in a tough position, where the first instinct is to get enough power and then sort out climate issues later. Never mind that they are projected to bear the brunt of climate change impacts.

All may not be lost for Kenya, however.

A CLEANER ENERGY FUTURE?

Interestingly, Kenya’s power development plan envisions the country’s power transmission monopoly being ended – a bill is already in parliament – and electricity-generating companies being able to sell their power directly to consumers. This may well be the silver lining for the country’s renewable energy sector.

An investor would be able to set up a wind or solar power farm and then sell that power, unlike in the current situation where only one state-run company can distribute electricity.

Kenya receives enough solar radiation to power its economy, if it chooses to tap that source. And with the right kind of regulatory support, the solar sector could actually help reach Vision 2030 goals.

Policies that work in the short term may not be as good in the long run. Climate costs must be incorporated into future reviews of government strategy in order to make renewable energy a viable future option in Kenya.

If this doesn’t happen, then come 2030, the country may find itself having to deal with increasingly worrying issues related to dependence on fossil fuels – not least of them worsening droughts, floods and other climate change-related impacts.

And it’s not just the energy sector that needs a shift in how it calculates costs (both obvious and hidden), but the economy too. Otherwise the availability of fossil fuel resources will be simply too tempting as a quick fix, and the opportunity to make renewable energy a major component of Kenya’s economy will be lost.

Ray Obiero is a physics graduate of Kenya’s Egerton University and blogs for AlertNet Climate on climate change issues.

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