Should Tanzania make own way on coal?

Summary

  • Is Tanzania on the wrong side of climate change by digging new coal mines and using the stuff to make electricity?
  • The country sits on potential coal reserves of a staggering five billion tons — the largest in East Africa — mostly in the south with the main deposit near Njombe in the south west, close to Malawi.
  • Yet only 250 000 tons are mined annually.

What we mine and how we generate power has become a global topic. But while it’s easy to lecture from the comfort of Europe or America, GEOFF HILL says the problem in Africa is different.

Is Tanzania on the wrong side of climate change by digging new coal mines and using the stuff to make electricity?

The country sits on potential coal reserves of a staggering five billion tons — the largest in East Africa — mostly in the south with the main deposit near Njombe in the south west, close to Malawi.

Yet only 250 000 tons are mined annually.

As Kenya plans its first coal-fired power station at Lamu, there’s one on the drawing board for Mtwara, 560 kilometres south of Dar es Salaam.

The port at Mtwara was built by Britain in the 1940s for the disastrous Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme that failed to take off, but in recent years it has been refurbished and can now take large ships, raising the possibility of coal exports.

The power plant would supply electricity to the nearby Dangote cement factory and surrounding towns.

After 55 years of independence, less than one-in-five Tanzanians has access to the power grid and environmentalists have raised concern about the use of fire wood for cooking and heating and a chronic loss of trees.

But plans for coal come at a time when groups including Greenpeace and NGOs linked to climate change condemn fossil fuels as archaic and polluting.

That doesn’t solve the problem of more than 600 million people across Africa who have no access to electricity except through their own diesel or petrol-fired generator where the cost-per-watt can be ten times that from a power station.

South Africa produces nearly 20 times more electricity than Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya combined, 90 per cent from coal. Botswana is opening new coal mines and power stations, and both Ghana and Nigeria are on the same path.

Donald Trump has pledged to bring back the great pits of Wyoming and along the Appalachian Mountains where thousands have lost their jobs, and Australia is building new carbon power plants.

But clean-burn technology has revolutionised the industry in Europe, Australia, even India, and Trump has pledged money to bring emissions down further.

Two-thirds of America’s energy comes from the black stuff and in latest figures, coal supply has jumped more than 20 per cent.

But unlike Africa, no one in the developed world has to worry about keeping the lights on.

Environmentalists say solar would be a better and quicker option, but it hasn’t been the case in India.

The state of Maharashtra around the financial capital, Mumbai, has seen more than 1,700 villages and settlements plunged into darkness after thieves stole solar panels, only recently installed by government.

Across Africa, Asia and South America, guarding panels has become a problem, with police, private security and even the army on patrol 24/7.

At night, solar energy has to be stored in giant batteries with limited life. And when its cloudy, generation can fall by 90 per cent.

Even in China, hailed for its move to cleaner fuel, solar makes up less than one per cent of the power supply, though this will grow. And while new mines have been shelved, Beijing is building 79 coal-fired plants in countries like Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and across the Balkans.

In a single week, China imports 60 times more coal than Tanzania mines in a year.

Electricity is the lifeblood of progress. Hospitals – especially operating theatres -- cannot run without it and anything from snake serum to HIV drugs need to be kept in a fridge.

Planed new rail lines linking the East African coast with the hinterland will be electric, but the watts need to be generated. And while the rest of the world mines coal, should poor countries be made to leave it in the ground?

With huge amounts of this cheapest of fuels still untouched in a land where more than a third of people live below the UN poverty line, it’s a tough call for government.

And, starting from scratch with its first coal-fired plant at Mtwara, Tanzania has a chance to use the latest clean-burn technology where less than one per cent of emissions enter the atmosphere.

The challenge is to ensure that, unlike much of Africa, everyone in Tanzania can simply flick a switch and enjoy what the rich world takes for granted.

Geoff Hill is a Zimbabwean writer who works across the African continent. He is a frequent visitor to Tanzania.