In July 2012, Africa’s biggest geothermal power project, the 280 megawatt Olkaria Geothermal Project, was commissioned in Kenya. The geothermal project is expected to boost current Kenya’s power output of 1.6 gigawatts by 18%, while producing near zero CO2 emissions. (In comparison, the USA’s power output is 1,137 gigawatts!).
One of Kenya’s major aims until 2030 is to ensure quality, secure and affordable energy for all of its citizens. Energy is an identified “enabler” of Kenya’s economic and social development. In other words, economic and social growth will be spurred by increased access to inexpensive electricity. For example, if farmers get access to cheaper and more reliable energy to help them process their crops, then they will increase their resilience to climatic changes and their vulnerability to continued droughts will diminish. Conversely, however, electricity production will need to increase as the demand for electricity grows to supply a burgeoning economy.
Geothermal energy is therefore vitally important to Kenya. Kenya Vision 2030 – the long-term development blueprint for the country – identifies improved geothermal electricity production as vital to ensuring a stable and secure supply of electricity. In addition to geothermal resources, the country has recently discovered commercial coal and oil deposits. While it is likely that Kenya will also begin to exploit these resources, the aim is to do so as efficiently as possible. Kenya is working from the sustainable development mentality that making the right energy investments now can prevent a more costly transition to sustainable options in the future. The new Olkaria geothermal project is one of several aimed at increasing the capacity of the national electricity grid by as much as 140% over five years to help meet growth in demand. By 2030, the government plans to raise power output to 15 gigawatts (from the current 1.5 gigawatts).
Not only will geothermal energy’s contribution help to meet the country’s growing power demand, but it is also more reliable than the current dominant energy sources. Kenya relies heavily on hydropower, which is impacted by reduced water flow caused by climate change and worsening drought across the country. Therefore, transforming to geothermal energy will help Kenya to decrease dependence on an increasingly uncertain energy source, as rainfall becomes more erratic.
The Olkaria geothermal power plant is located in the Great Rift Valley area in Kenya, which has an immense potential for geothermal energy. The Great Rift Valley is a failed rift – an area where the continental plate is pulling apart – resulting in strong geothermal activity, such as volcanos. This makes it the perfect location for geothermal energy exploitation. With active geothermal activity not far from the earth’s crust, you don’t need to dig very deep to reach high temperature levels! Once the Olkaria geothermal power plant is completed in 2014, Kenya will be on the global geothermal map as it will be the world’s single biggest geothermal project in terms of power output.
"Geothermal is seen as the preferred power generation for Kenya because its operation costs are less than other modes of power generation, and in the long run [it] can help the country achieve a reduction in unit cost of power by 50 per cent," Nashon Adero, a policy analyst with the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) said. In particular, despite the substantial upfront investment required to develop a geothermal site, geothermal power is more affordable than hydropower to operate.
It is wonderful to see a country in the throes of economic and social development being forward thinking, and putting the sometimes very abstract term “sustainable development” into cutting-edge practice.
Images courtesy of Johann kr and uzi yachinn on Flickr
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