Thu, Nov 28, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Kenya’s geothermal energy revolution

Electricity may be at a premium in Kenya, but the country hopes to be the world’s leading exponent of geothermal power by 2023

By Jessica Hatcher  /  The Guardian, NAIROBI

Illustration: Mountain People

You can understand why the Masai gave Kenya’s Hell’s Gate national park its name, says Isaac Kirimi, drilling superintendent at the site’s Olkaria geothermal plant.

In the active east African rift, fractures in the ground seep sulphur, while rocks are too hot to touch.

The Earth’s crust is communicating with the magma chamber, Kirimi says.

The region is considered one of the most exciting geothermal prospects in the world.

Where Kirimi and his team have drilled wells, water heated by molten lava roars like a jet engine as it bursts out of the ground.

East Africa is undergoing an energy revolution driven by massive offshore natural gas finds in Tanzania and notable oil discoveries in Kenya and Uganda, all in the past three years.

However, energy from these hydrocarbons is yet to be realized. The domestic shortfall is a major hindrance to growth, leaving millions of people with insufficient access to electricity.

About 16 percent of Kenya’s population has access to electricity, according to World Bank data, and demand is outstripping supply. Rationing is a daily reality for many.

“The [national grid] service is unreliable and costs business owners large amounts in backup infrastructure and fuel,” access:energy managing director Harrison Leaf.

Several private companies like Leaf’s are developing off-grid micro-solutions to supplement national supply.

However, geothermal has become the darling of on-grid solutions for Kenya, and plenty of other countries are keen to benefit.

Kenya’s state-owned power producer, Kengen, has been asked to provide consultancy services to Sudan, Rwanda and Tanzania.

According to the Geothermal Energy Association, Kenya is likely to become the world leader if its planned projects are completed on time.

The country has set the ambitious target of producing 5,000 megawatts by 2030, which will power millions of homes: All energy generated is fed into the national grid to increase the percentage of households served.

The World Bank estimates that geothermal from east Africa’s Rift Valley could power 150 million homes.

Progress is steaming ahead at the country’s largest geothermal site, 80km northwest of Nairobi.

Kirimi has lost count of how many wells he has drilled. His eight rigs with giant cylindrical shafts and diamond teeth are drilling wells at a rate of more than 40 a year.

One well has the power to produce 18MW annually; by July next year, Kirimi hopes to be generating 280MW — and working toward the site’s next target of 560MW.

“Within 10 years, there is no reason why we should not be beyond 3,000MW,” Kengen geothermal development manager Geoffrey Muchemi says.

This would equal the US’ current installed capacity and, in terms of geothermal as a percentage of national power, make Kenya a world leader.

Muchemi attributes the rate of growth in part to the Kenyan government’s support.

“Hydroelectric power has been our mainstay for a long time. But Kenya is a dry country. There are times when the rivers have no water. We only have two rainy seasons in a year and there are years when the rain completely fails,” he says.

Hydroelectric energy generators can run at as little as 58 percent of their installed capacity, he says.

Diesel, likewise, cannot be relied upon for continuous production; like a car, it has to be stopped for routine maintenance, and does not run at more than 60 percent.

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