Tapping into heat energy from the East African Rift has helped increase electrical access in Kenya. But making this widely available can be a struggle, and developers face environmental challenges with this seemingly green source of power
Verdant hills stretch into the distance at Hell’s Gate National Park, where zebras, buffaloes, antelopes, baboons and other wildlife roam an idyllic landscape of forests, gorges and grassy volcanoes near the shores of Lake Naivasha.
Snaking over the same landscape are pipes. Miles and miles of pipes – some high enough off the ground that trucks can pass underneath and giraffes won’t hit their heads – carry steam from beneath this volcanic valley to big power plants inside the park. The valley’s animal herders have long known the unusual properties of the ground under their feet. On chilly days, they warmed themselves near vents that emit plumes of hot steam. Now, Kenya is increasingly harnessing that steam to turn generators that can allow it to expand electrical service and power its rapidly growing economy.
The park, about 50 miles from the capital Nairobi, sits over the East African Rift, a huge fracture in the earth’s crust that also cuts through Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and other countries. Steam from here helped generate 47 per cent of Kenya’s electricity in 2015, with hydropower (nearly 35 per cent) generating much of the rest.
Kenya has pushed hard to harness its geothermal capabilities. It generated 45 megawatts of power with geothermal energy in 1985 and now generates about 630 megawatts; nearly 400 megawatts of that production has come online since 2014.
“No matter how you cut it, that is a significant amount of generation in the geothermal world,” says Gene Suemnicht, chief executive of EGS, a California-based geothermal consultancy that has worked in Kenya.
That explosive growth has made geothermal power a promising source of renewable energy for a country of 44 million people that is expected to nearly double in population by 2050.
Much of Kenya lacks electricity; only 40 per cent of its population has access to reliable service. Much of the African continent has even less: only about 25 per cent of Africans have access to reliable electricity. Although Africa is home to 16 per cent of the world’s population, it consumes only 3.3 per cent of global power production.
Reliable energy is a vital driver of economic growth. At Oserian, one of Kenya’s largest flower exporters based near Lake Naivasha, geothermal steam warms greenhouses and generates electricity at its two power plants.
Geothermal heating allows the company to sell 380 million flower stems each year and also grow “varieties of roses that would not be economically viable without 24-hour heating,” says Neil Hellings, managing director of Oserian. Savings from using geothermal energy versus conventional electricity let Oserian pay its employees more than double that of many competitors, Hellings adds.