Coal power
A coal power plant

‘Coal power is cheap and we have it in abundance’ is a popular quote among coal power proponents. In my daily interactions, I have had to answer the question “Is coal power really cheap?” Again and again, I have answered the question with my own questions.

If coal power is cheap, why are we realizing this after over 100 years since the discovery of coal in Nigeria? If coal is cheap, why did the Nigerian Railway Corporation and the Electric Company of Nigeria switch to diesel in the 1950’s? If coal power is cheap, why is it that since 2014 when the pronouncement of 30 percent power from coal made, we still have not added 1MW to the grid from coal power?

My hypothesis: we have not added a megawatt from coal to the grid because we are not using public fund to execute it. And importantly, private investors and investment banks are divesting and are restricting fresh investments for dirty and unsustainable energy generation like coal.

Hear me, coal power is not cheap. It is only considered cheap because coal power generation companies do not pay for and our electricity bills do not reflect the social and environmental costs (externalities) associated with processing coal on human health, the natural environment, and our climate. These externalities are consequential.

Going back in time to the great smog of London in 1952; an event that was as a direct result of burning coal. It was estimated that within the five days period which the smog lasted, 4,000 people died as a direct result. Another 100,000 were made ill. A recent research suggests that about 8,000 more died in the following months as a result. Now, how cheap is that?

A 2011 study titled “Mining Coal, Mounting Costs: the Life Cycle Consequences of Coal,” by scientists at Harvard University, it was found that when these externalities are fully factored, the price of power coal doubles or triples. The study considered the economic, health and environmental costs associated with each stage in the life cycle of coal and estimated that the public has borne a cost which ranges between $175 and $500 billion dollars annually in the United States in the form of medical bills. Please, how cheap is that?

The 2014 New Climate Economy Report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, valued deaths from air pollution in China to be 10% of its GDP. Again, how cheap is that? Note that pollution in China is mainly driven by combustion of coal.

China has learned its lessons the hard way and has gone ahead to suspend the development of over 100 new coal-fired power plants, Nigeria does not need to learn from her own mistakes. We don’t have the data or medical capacity to deal with the damning consequences of large-scale coal power on human health and the natural environment.

Unfortunately, it seems that large corporations are in on the coal revolution in Nigeria. For example, Dangote Cement, in 2016 disclosed that it has converted all its power plant to coal-fired as against gas. The plants use about 12,000 tonnes of coal daily. Ashaka cement is also investing in coal power with coal for its Maiganga mine. In this age of sustainable development, this shouldn’t be the case.

In any case, constructing a new coal power will mean relying on dirty fuel for another 40 to 50 years of the plant’s lifespan. As it stands, conventional coal power plants are fast becoming an ‘outdated’ technology. Researchers have gone ahead to estimate that if all the proposed coal power plants were to be built, this could result in up to $981 billion in stranded assets. So, can Nigeria cope with another huge investment going moribund?

Even with the President Donald Trump’s efforts in rolling back pollution regulations, he has not been able to stop the market from steadily moving away from coal.

Instead of coal in Nigeria, we should be looking for ways to safeguard our pipelines, end gas flaring and harness our abundant gas reserves. As a cheaper and cleaner fuel, gas should be the priority. Luckily, Nigeria’s pioneer domestic liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant owned and operated by Greenville Oil and Gas Company Limited with phase 1 daily capacity of 2750 tonnes from 3 trains of LNG located in Rumuji in Emuoha LGA of Rivers State coming online this year.

Thus, with the nation’s growing hydropower capacity, huge potential for clean but variable supply from solar power, and increasing investment in fairly clean and abundant natural gas, Nigeria has a winning formula for her long-standing energy problems. Burning coal does not have to come into the equation.

Burning coal for power can be likened to eating junk food all day, every day. It may be cheap, even taste good but it is not healthy. In the end, you pay the price through poor health, sky-high medical expense, and shortened lifespan.

So, let’s not get it twisted, ‘you don’t drink poison and expect it to kill your enemy.’ With weak medical facilities, burning the supposedly “cheap coal” within Nigeria will hurt Nigerians (not the west) in very ‘un-cheap’ ways.

Coal power is not cheap power.

(Article originally appeared on Blueprint.ng written by Emmanuel Unaegbu)

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