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HomeNewsWorld Bank’s green diktat stops clean coal powering Africa

World Bank’s green diktat stops clean coal powering Africa


TO mark the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s Energy for Africa initiative, we’ve been publishing instalments of Geoff Hill’s ‘Heart of Darkness: Why energy poverty is a security issue’, an account of the problems of energy access in sub-Saharan Africa. In today’s fourth instalment, Hill reports how Africans are ‘tired of being lectured by people in rich countries who have never lived a day without electricity’ and tells how clean coal, not renewables, is the efficient and effective way forward. 

If, as Sylvanus Ayeni points out, Africa’s corrupt political culture is holding the continent back, what can be done? Ayeni says it would be better to sell the state corporations and let the private sector do the rest. 

He has a note of warning though: ‘Too often in Africa, privatisation means selling an asset at a discount to someone in government. Instead, we need real investors to buy the shares and others to set up in competition.’ 

For example, in Zimbabwe there is a requirement that a controlling stake remains in local ownership. This inevitably opens the door to corruption,and in fact ownership is of little interest to consumers.

In the Zimbabwean capital Harare, Dr Aaron Chiwoko is an engineer who has made a study of his country’s power supply. He believes the poor don’t care who owns what. ‘Ask those who live without electricity or running water,’ he says. 

Overcoming the greens

Electricity for Africa is on the shopping list for most donor countries. The US is trying to help with its Power Africa programme, for example. But much of the potential funding is stymied in practice because donors such as the World Bank impose rules that prevent funds being spent on power stations that will burn fossil fuels. 

Dr Chiwoko says this makes no sense in resource-rich countries: Angola and Nigeria are among the world’s top ten oil producers. Mozambique has natural gas; South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya and others have billions of tons of coal in the ground. 

But they can’t use any of these at home with funds from the World Bank, or even with loans from some democracies, who decree there must be no fossil fuel in the mix.

And so electricity is either not available, or it’s in short supply with long outages. And even those who have it only use the grid for lights and maybe a fridge and TV, because anything that generates heat uses a lot of power. For that they turn to paraffin or, more often, firewood.

The rules, Dr Chiwoko says, are made up by people who have no idea of hardship. He thinks Africa needs its own solutions, drafted in consultation with the public. ‘This is how we will change a continent that remains so tragically in the dark.’

Coal is likely to be key, and in particular, clean coal. Coal delivers 90 per cent of South Africa’s power, and in Botswana the figure is 100 per cent. Both Kenya and Tanzania have plans for new coal-fired generators.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups get it right when they say coal is dirty, emits carbon dioxide and is not good for the planet. I’ve supported the green cause since my teens, but on campus or at UN meetings, it worries me to hear speakers shouted down by the chant: ‘There’s no such thing as clean coal.’

It’s also true to say that surgery is painful and raw potatoes can be toxic enough to make you ill. That’s why you get a jab before the doctor goes to work, and we cook our spuds.

Clean coal is certainly real. Professor Rosemary Falcon pioneered the Clean Coal Research Group at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. 

Known locally as ‘Wits’, this is where the late Nelson Mandela studied law in the 1950s. Now retired, but still consulting, Falcon says she and her team have proved that clean coal is not only possible, but one of the cheapest ways to generate electricity. 

The process starts at the mine. ‘You need to separate the low-quality coal from the better grades that are already less toxic,’ she says. ‘Then we can crush it and take out chemicals that don’t contribute to a clean burn. Now you’re starting with a product that generates more heat, stays alight for longer and produces less fumes.’

‘I am so tired of being lectured by people in rich countries who have never lived a day without electricity.’
– Dr Samson Bada

‘Aid groups come to Africa and give out solar lamps the size of a pumpkin, but no one in London or LosAngeles would be willing to make do with that as their only source of electricity.’
– Dr Jacob Masiala

It’s not just South Africa though. At the other end of the continent, clean coal is seen as part of the future. Egypt’s notorious power blackouts were among a list of grievances when, in 2011, crowds on Cairo’s Tahrir Square forced president Hosni Mubarak from power in one of several revolts known as the Arab Spring.

The new government was unable to lift power output, however, and outages continued until in 2016 parliament voted to overturn a ban on coal. Within months, the government announced plans for a clean-coal plant – the world’s largest – at Hamrawein, a fishing village on the Red Sea, 600 kilometres (370 miles) south-east of Cairo.

The move to clean coal is taking place outside Africa too. Electrification has been at the heart of Indian elections for 30 years, with candidates promising to get rural homes on the grid. Since 2015, villages have been wired at record speed although, as in Africa, consumers are often short of money to pay for the service.

In December 2018, at a UN climate change meeting in Poland, the Indian minister for the environment, Dr Harsh Vardhan, told the assembly that those who condemned the use of coal either hadn’t caught up with the facts or were ‘in denial’.

‘We are launching coal plants all the time and we are castigated,’ said Vardhan. ‘What they don’t tell you is that we are closing dirty generators even faster and replacing them with new, clean technology.’

Vardhan is a medical doctor, and understands pollution. He says that India still has to use coal, but will use modern technology to burn it cleanly.

‘This is part of our shift to clean energy, in line with our goals of lowering emissions under the Paris Accord. And cleaner coal is being researched all the time in our labs. In short, we shut down dirty, inefficient power stations and open new projects with clean coal.’

And he warns against foreign interference: ‘These decisions have to be taken by us,’ he says. ‘There are people far away, with good, even noble ideas, but they are not on the ground, living with our problems.’

This has not stopped environmentalists attacking the countries that want to move to clean coal. One of Rosemary Falcon’s colleagues, Dr Samson Bada, is originally from Nigeria and, like Falcon, believes clean coal is the future. India, he says, has set an example for the world. He is therefore bewildered by criticism of its use of fossil fuels.

‘I am so tired of being lectured by people in rich countries who have never lived a day without electricity,’ he says. ‘Maybe they should go home and turn off their fridge, geyser, their laptops and lights. Then live like that for a month and tell us, who have suffered for years, not to burn coal.’

And Western environmentalists’ enthusiasm for renewables is not always shared. Dr Jacob Masiala is Zimbabwean and took his doctorate under Falcon. Africans, he says, need the same level of energy as the developed world if the problem of emigration and militia is to be stopped. 

‘Aid groups come to Africa and give out solar lamps the size of a pumpkin’, he says. ‘But no one in Londonor Los Angeles would be willing to make do with that as their only source of electricity … don’t tell me that China, Russia and the West should have electricity and black people in Mali or Mozambique should live in huts with light from a solar toy. We need power for factories and to run schools and hospitals.’

Dr Bada, on the other hand, thinks that wind and solar do have a future, but he also says the technology is not yet ready to drive the industrialisation of the continent. ‘Solar doesn’t work at night, and turbines stand idle when the wind doesn’t blow,’ he says. ‘How do you run an operating theatre with that? How do you power a city, a school, the lift in a gold mine taking workers more than a mile underground? 

‘There has to be a baseload power supply and this can be complemented with solar … the Industrial Revolution and the growth of China and India have all been powered by coal.’

Bada says that for Africans, electricity is an ethical issue. ‘Tanzania, for example, has around 70 per cent of its people still short of electricity while it sits on four billion tons of coal, and still we hear activists from wealthy countries chanting, “Leave it in the ground”’.

All that is holding up a wholesale change to clean coal is a lack of funding and political will. But he warns that ‘for every day that we live with the status quo, people are forced to breathe dirty air. That is tantamount to a crime against humanity if we have the science but do nothing.’

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Geoff Hill
Geoff Hill
Geoff Hill is a Zimbabwean writer working across Africa. Formerly special reports manager for Rupert Murdoch's flagship paper, the Australian, first non-American to win a John Steinbeck Award and author of the bestselling The Battle for Zimbabwe. A life-long conservationist, he has written extensively about the environment.

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