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 for 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.
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.