Power-starved Africa gains ap­petite for coal

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY GE­OFF HILL

JO­HAN­NES­BURG, SOUTH AFRICA | Tan­za­nia, with po­ten­tial re­serves of 5 bil­lion tons of coal, is plan­ning its first coal-fired power plant. Kenya wants to build its own coal-pow­ered plant, while Ghana and Nige­ria are eye­ing ex­panded use of coal for elec­tric­ity. Land­locked Botswana is build­ing a 1,000-mile rail­way to trans­port coal to a port in neigh­bor­ing Namibia for ex­port to the world.

If there’s a “war on coal” in Africa, coal may be win­ning.

The con­cerns about coal ex­pressed by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and cli­mate re­searchers in the West are voiced here mostly by white ex­pa­tri­ates and for­eign non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions. Coal in Africa is an abun­dant re­source for a con­ti­nent still hus­tling to catch up with the de­vel­oped world.

South Africa, the eco­nomic en­gine of the re­gion, gets 93 per­cent of its elec­tric­ity from coal, one of the high­est per­cent­ages in the world.

John Owusu, a re­tired en­gi­neer orig­i­nally from Ghana, worked for 50 years across all re­gions of Africa and was an early dis­ci­ple of clean en­ergy. He un­der­stands Africa’s ap­petite for a fos­sil fuel that is in de­cline in the U.S. and other ad­vanced economies, as well as the re­luc­tance to em­brace al­ter­na­tive fuel sources.

“Peo­ple think of this con­ti­nent as jun­gle and sunshine, but we have a long rainy sea­son in the trop­ics, more like a mon­soon, and there’s no sun for days,” Mr. Owusu said. “That makes it hard to rely on some­thing like so­lar. Wind tur­bines make more sense, but you still need bat­ter­ies to store the power.”

Tan­za­nia, with a gross do­mes­tic prod­uct of just $50 bil­lion a year — roughly com­pa­ra­ble to North Dakota’s — has a pop­u­la­tion of 52 mil­lion, 85 per­cent of whom are not linked to the power grid.

“If you cook on an open fire, have no elec­tric­ity and go to bed hun­gry, you don’t lie awake won­der­ing about the virtue of coal, gas or so­lar,” said Mr. Owusu. “And if there’s no elec­tric­ity in your town, there’s not much in­vest­ment and no new jobs.”

There’s even a health ef­fect from un­cer­tain en­ergy sources: “Vac­cines, snakebite serum, even HIV drugs should be kept in a fridge. In many places, that’s just not pos­si­ble,” he said.

De­fend­ing coal

Africa’s ap­petite for coal has some high-pro­file de­fend­ers.

For­mer U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Kofi An­nan re­cently told the Ghana News Agency that coal and other fos­sil fu­els are crit­i­cal at least in the short term to bridge the con­ti­nent’s mas­sive en­ergy gap. Mr. An­nan chaired a re­port from the Africa Progress Panel on en­ergy this month that con­cluded an abrupt shift away from coal was sim­ply not re­al­is­tic for most African gov­ern­ments.

“What we are ad­vo­cat­ing is that African gov­ern­ments har­ness ev­ery avail­able en­ergy op­tion, in as cost-ef­fec­tive and tech­no­log­i­cally ef­fi­cient man­ner as pos­si­ble, so that no one is left be­hind,” Mr. An­nan told the news agency.

There also is lin­ger­ing re­sent­ment that de­vel­oped coun­tries, whose wealth his­tor­i­cally has re­lied heav­ily on coal and other fos­sil fu­els, are telling Africans not to ex­ploit their vast coal re­serves. An­a­lysts say African na­tions have an es­ti­mated 35 bil­lion tons of re­cov­er­able coal re­serves that could sup­ply the con­ti­nent’s cur­rent needs for more than a cen­tury.

“We in Nige­ria have coal, but we have a power prob­lem. Yet we’ve been blocked be­cause it is not ‘green,’” Nige­rian Fi­nance Min­is­ter Kemi Adeo­sun told a joint IMF-World Bank meet­ing late last year. “There is some hypocrisy be­cause we have the en­tire Western in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion built on coal en­ergy.”

Coal’s en­dur­ing sway is ev­i­dent even in South Africa, with its gold mines, Ger­man-style high­ways, a so­phis­ti­cated fi­nan­cial sec­tor and daily flights con­nect­ing Jo­han­nes­burg to cap­i­tals around the world. The coun­try has a nu­clear power sta­tion, and nearly all of its peo­ple have lights at the flick of a switch, though cut­offs are com­mon for non­pay­ment.

But the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of elec­tric­ity power comes from coal-pow­ered util­i­ties, and South Africa has some of rich­est seams of coal in the world.

Deserts like the Sa­hara or Kala­hari are per­fect to make en­ergy from the sun, but on a con­ti­nent where a third of the pop­u­la­tion lives un­der the of­fi­cial U.N. poverty line, so­lar power users need to hire armed guards to pre­vent the cov­eted pan­els from be­ing stolen.

Maria Van­der­walt runs a small win­ery north of Cape Town. Three years ago, she con­verted to so­lar power.

“It was a won­der­ful 10 months,” she re­called, “though on cloudy days we used a diesel gen­er­a­tor. Then one night, a truck­load of rob­bers ar­rived with guns, tied up my staff and took the pan­els and half my bat­ter­ies. We’re now back on the grid.”

Her tale is com­mon across Africa, Asia and even Brazil. In the ru­ral dis­tricts near Mum­bai on the west coast of In­dia, nearly 2,000 vil­lages and smaller set­tle­ments were elec­tri­fied for the first time in 2012 us­ing so­lar power, some of it funded by aid projects.

Since then, nearly all the equip­ment has been bro­ken or stolen and the govern­ment is putting the re­gion on the coal-pow­ered grid. In­dia gets more than half of its elec­tric­ity from coal.

Room to grow

Out­side South Africa, coal is still used at rel­a­tively low lev­els in many African coun­tries com­pared with China and the U.S. In a sin­gle week, China im­ports 60 times more coal than Tan­za­nia mines in a year.

But the pic­ture may be chang­ing. Kenya has com­mis­sioned its first coal-fired power sta­tion near Lamu, one of re­gion’s old­est set­tle­ments founded by Arab slavers in 1370. Al­though Kenya is East Africa’s largest and most mod­ern econ­omy, 60 per­cent of Kenyans have no ac­cess to the power grid.

In the Congo basin, forests are be­ing cleared twice as fast as in the Ama­zon, and much of the wood is used for cook­ing and heat­ing. Re­searchers say Nige­ria has lost three-quar­ters of its trees in the past 40 years.

On the world’s poor­est con­ti­nent, the lack of power is seen as a greater public cri­sis than the rel­a­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal virtues of coal com­pared with so­lar, nat­u­ral gas, wind or other power sources.

At Mt­wara, an un­used port orig­i­nally de­vel­oped by the British in the 1940s for an ill-fated peanut farming ven­ture, Tan­za­nia has re­fur­bished the docks to ex­port coal from nearby mines. A power sta­tion is also on the cards, with barely a word of protest.

While Amer­i­cans — hardly any of whom have lived a day with­out elec­tric­ity — de­bate Pres­i­dent Trump’s plan to re­open pits in Wy­oming and mines in Ken­tucky and West Vir­ginia, Africa mines and uses fos­sil fuel in ever greater quan­ti­ties.

But could the “clean coal” tech­nol­ogy that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has touted be part of a U.S. aid pack­age to African na­tions?

In re­sponse to a ques­tion from The Wash­ing­ton Times, Grif­fin Thomp­son, act­ing deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for en­ergy re­sources, said it might.

“It is the pre­rog­a­tive of ev­ery coun­try to de­ter­mine their en­ergy mix,” he said. “Whether it’s coal or nat­u­ral gas or re­new­able en­ergy, we see it as to the path­way to­ward greater eco­nomic growth.”

Mr. Thomp­son said there was a need to look at “what would be re­quired to fa­cil­i­tate the sort of coal tech­nol­ogy” other coun­tries may need.


In a sin­gle week, China im­ports 60 times more coal than Tan­za­nia mines in a year. The en­vi­ron­men­tal virtues of green en­ergy are not pri­or­i­ties on the world’s poor­est con­ti­nent.

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