Geothermal powerhouse Kenya maximises its potential

Sensemaking / Geothermal powerhouse Kenya maximises its potential

Energy harnessed from hot steam in East Africa’s Rift Valley could power Kenya many times over.

21 May 2012

Energy harnessed from hot steam in East Africa’s Rift Valley could power Kenya many times over.

For the geothermal power industry, the best natural steam is found nice and close to the Earth's surface. Which helps explain the current buzz around hot prospects in East Africa's Rift Valley: a giant trench stretching 6,000 km from the Red Sea to Mozambique, where two tectonic plates are slowly drifting apart.

The potential for geothermal in this region is massive – estimated to exceed 15,000MW, according to a report backed by the UN University Geothermal Training Programme. Among those starting to see it as a big part of their energy future is Kenya, which has just leapfrogged into the list of the world's top ten geothermal power producers. Kenya plans to treble its output in the next five years, on the way to achieving an installed capacity of 5,000MW by 2030. This drive towards a reliable and affordable source of electricity is an integral part of the Government's ambition to become a mid-income economy in the next 20 years, as set out in its 'Vision 2030' development plan.

The big hurdle is the high cost of exploration and drilling. The Kenyan Government accepts that it will have to cover some of the initial costs, and has set up the state-owned Geothermal Development Company (GDC), which aims to attract further capital by opening up opportunities for private sector participation. The UN's Global Environment Fund is putting $18 million into a regional support network known as the African Rift Geothermal Development Facility, providing technical assistance to Uganda, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Tanzania – as well as Kenya – and helping them create a clear regulatory framework for the industry.

It will be a high risk business, but well-connected UK startup Cluff Geothermal is one company that's convinced it's worthwhile. "The resource, by all indications, is fantastic", says Managing Director George Percy, "and we certainly believe that in time East Africa really could become a global leader in geothermal output." With Kenya's economy growing rapidly, Percy says, the country's Government is spearheading a drive to attract serious investment in an energy source that's theoretically capable of meeting all the country's requirements many times over.

The heat that drives this technology is there, underground, all round the globe. It's low carbon (though not quite zero, with some subterranean greenhouse gases coming up in the steam). And it won't run out any time soon. If you know a good place to tap into it, and you've got the capital, then a geothermal power station may well be a cost-effective proposition. The Philippines and Iceland get as much as 30% of their power from it, but California currently leads the world, with the world's largest geothermal steam turbine plant at The Geysers. More than 20 other countries, on every continent, generate some electricity this way.

Geothermal power top ten

United States
Philippines
Indonesia
Mexico
Italy
New Zealand
Iceland
Japan
El Salvador
Kenya

3086
1904
1197
958
843
628
575
536
204
167

Source: Geothermal Energy Association

Roger East

Photo: iStockphoto / Thinkstock

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