Kenya is on the verge of striking commercial coal reserves, which could change its energy security situation as it strives to bridge a widening electricity supply gap.
Coal deposits have been found in 11 out of 20 wells drilled so far in sections of Kitui and Makueni districts, a Ministry of Energy report shows.
The wells are spread over an area of 20 square kilometres, part of a 400 square kilometre area targeted for prospecting.
Coal samples from the area that were analysed in South Africa have returned a positive assessment, with its quality being classified as comparable or better than that found in South Africa.
The ministry has invited independent consultants to do a feasibility study on the deposits. Tenders towards that end were advertised on Monday last week. Coal prospecting is now concentrated within the Mui and Yoonge areas although it will eventually expand to other areas. The whole area under target stretches about 80 kilometres with a width of about five kilometres.
The area is within a zone known as Permo-Triassic, a mineral rich zone that extends from South Africa through to Somalia.
The 11 wells have confirmed coal deposits ranging from 1.88 to 12 metres in coal seam (thickness). The depth ranges between 75 and 320 meters. The analysis found that it had almost equal calorific value with South Africa's, its ash content was lower, meaning it has less foreign matter. It was also found to be more volatile, with less fixed carbons.
But it has more moisture and sulphur content. However, higher sulphur content is seen as an added advantage because it can be used in other industrial processes.
Most local coal is used by cement manufacturers and is mainly imported from South Africa. Bamburi Cement, the country's largest cement maker, uses over 150,000 tonnes of coal every year, mainly from South Africa.
In South Africa, electricity is four times cheaper than Kenya's. But Kenya seems to have decided to shift gears based on Ministry of Energy projections for electricity investment in the next 20 years.
The plan indicates that Sh133 billion will be invested in coal projects to generate additional 1,000 megawatts or about 20 per cent of the national electricity needs. By then, Kenya will have electricity generation capacity of 4,871 megawatts against a demand of 4,620 megawatts - a reserve of five per cent.
Current capacity stands at 1,045 megawatts (until October when it will be 1,105megawatts) against a peak demand of 1,082 megawatts creating a reserve margin of minus four per cent.
Kenya's situation is such that 67 per cent of total power is generated from hydro sources, 10 per cent from geo-thermal and 23 per cent from thermal which is price sensitive to fluctuating international fuel prices. One advantage of coal is that it is readily available as long as reserves last and are therefore not affected by weather patterns.
According to Mr Stephen Mutimba, the Director of Energy for Sustainable Development Africa, an energy management consultancy group, the discovery is opportune for the country as it needs a lot of energy to push the vision 2030 development agenda. However, there have been fears over polluting attributes of coal mining.
"Our carbon emissions are low unlike in other countries like in Europe where they are closing their coal mines in favour of renewable energy because their carbon emissions are already very high," said Mr Mutimba.
Coal is also used to increase heating of iron and steel making furnaces, heat cement making kilns, making of zinc batteries and as a liquid fuel. According to the World Coal Institute, coal fuels 40 per cent of the world's electricity.
The institute forecasts that coal will continue to play a key role in the world's energy mix, because if rising demand for electricity and the need for steel in construction, car production, and demands for household appliances.
The institute says proven coal reserves could last for the next 155 years, compared to oil and gas reserves which can last for between 41 to 65 years at current production levels.