GE's withdrawal from coal is a step towards a new fossil free era

By Omar Elmawi and Landry Ninteretse*

General Electric (GE), one of the world's largest makers of coal-fired power plants recently announced the company’s intentions to not build any new coal plants. Would this be signaling the final stroke for numerous coal projects across Asia and Africa? 

In its statement, GE was categorical to say that it will “continue to focus on and invest in its core renewable energy and power generation businesses, working to make electricity more affordable, reliable, accessible, and sustainable.” However, the exit plan and timeline for existing nuclear and coal power plants are not fully clear as GE has indicated its intention to continue working with customers on existing obligations as it pursues this exit. 

This could set the precedent for continued work on projects such as the highly contentious 1,050-megawatt Lamu coal-fired power plant, which GE agreed to design, construct and maintain in May 2018, along with Amu Power. Estimated at $2 billion, the cost of the power plant is by no means negligible. That said, there is still a long way for GE to ensure that the company fully exits the 17 coal power stations it is trying to equip worldwide.

Towards the cancellation of the Lamu project?

The withdrawal of GE represents a blow to Amu power, which has refused to comment on the decision. It comes less than a year after the African Development Bank (AfDB) indicated that it will not fund the coal-fired power plant project in Kenya and that it is withdrawing from financing any coal project on the content. It also comes after this project was halted by a local environmental court, a decision which gave immense hope to the communities which have struggled for years to protect their livelihoods and the socio-cultural heritage of Lamu, a UNESCO heritage site.

GE had come under severe criticism in 2018 after revelations of its involvement in the construction of the Lamu coal plant. Local communities and groups sent a correspondence to the American company asking them to withdraw from the project unconditionally. In its response in February 2019, GE denied its involvement in the project, indicating that it has no ownership interest in the Lamu coal plant. This statement came amidst media reports quoting the CEO of Amu Power expressing his satisfaction at signing a cooperation agreement with GE on the Lamu power facility.

This lack of transparency and continued support of fossil fuel projects saw GE facing mounting pressure from investors and environmental watchdogs to switch to more environmentally sustainable projects. Earlier this year, a coalition of 65 civil society groups from 16 countries where GE is expanding coal signed a letter requesting GE to get out of coal immediately. It was a strong sign that the people from countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mozambique, Turkey, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa and Tanzania have rejected GE’s rampant coal expansion estimated at 15GW of new coal power.

The potential of Renewable Energy gives a glimpse of the future

More and more financiers are increasingly skeptical of the idea of financing coal projects, especially in Africa and Asia. Last week, The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private-sector arm which owns equity stakes in many large commercial banks in emerging markets, introduced new climate change conditions for its investments in commercial banks to encourage the lenders to wind down support for coal projects in African, South Asian and South American countries. 

This growing ecological awareness and increased moral responsibility among the banking community has led to the upcoming Finance in Common (FIC) Summit, which will bring together for the first time 450 Public Development Banks and Development Finance Institutions from around the world to discuss the alignment of its policies with climate and sustainable development goals. It is hoped that this Summit will finally put people and the planet at the centre of development by bringing greater scrutiny to fossil fuel financing across the world. Civil society from all over the globe is keen to see a joint declaration that puts more restrictions to finance for coal, oil and gas.

GE’s announcement is a step in the right direction but a lot more needs to be done to ensure that the company is firmly on a low-carbon trajectory. GE has the potential to lead the way in renewable energy technology development, and last year’s launch of the world’s largest wind turbine Haliade-X is a demonstration of this potential. However, GE needs to listen to concerns from investors, scientists, climate experts and society, and completely dump its fossil fuel past, focusing on a more just, greener and cleaner future we all deserve.

*Omar Elmawi is the Campaign Coordinator for deCOALonize in Lamu, Kenya and Landry Ninteretse is the Africa Team Leader of