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

Thu, Nov 28, 2013 - Page 9

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.

However, geothermal consistently delivers almost full capacity.

About 13 percent of Kenya’s power generating capacity is geothermal, but in real terms it contributes 22 percent to the grid.

“That is one of the reasons why the expansion is based on geothermal,” Muchemi says.

A lack of human resources is one of the primary factors limiting Kengen’s geothermal growth.

Developing geothermal requires highly skilled specialists. The necessary skills are not commonly taught at universities. The UN began addressing this problem four decades ago. In the mid-1970s, they identified the potential of geothermal in the wake of heavily inflated oil prices during the energy crisis.

By 1979, the UN had established the first Geothermal Training Program, hosted by Iceland, in an attempt to reduce dependence on hydrocarbons.

Muchemi, a geology graduate, won a scholarship to join the UN’s program and sends eight of his employees every year to study in Iceland and New Zealand.

Many more are taught on site by visiting lecturers, or attend the new geothermal postgraduate course at Kimathi University in Kenya.

“We are trying to assist local universities to teach geothermal,” says Muchemi, who helped Kimathi University write its curriculum.

Every employee at Kengen’s geothermal plant is Kenyan.

Ensuring the local community benefits from employment at the plant is challenging. Kengen has a policy of employing locally, but Kirimi says many of the Maasai did not attend school.

“We try to give them jobs according to their ability,” he says.

Joseph Ole Kiraison, 21, is a young Masai from the nearby Olomanyana community. He was unable to finish school because of financial constraints and is working as a security contractor at one of the drilling rigs.

“[Olkaria] is a development opportunity, but there’s corruption,” he says, referring to local leaders.

He believes the community is not developing from opportunities presented by the plant because of inter-clan rivalries, which mean certain people are promoted above others.

Both Kengen’s chief human resources officer and community liason officer are from the Masai community. Together, they seek to counter such bias and promote Masai rights.

After an environmental impact assessment, Kengen is obliged to resettle those living near the plant. This is due to noise and air pollution. Those entitled are awaiting the resettlement and compensation packages they have agreed, which comply with World Bank standards. Kengen is responsible for ensuring they are not worse off than at the outset.