In February, Kenyans awoke to news that has become an annual ritual: Authorities were considering temporarily shutting down hydropower dams, the country’s largest source of electricity. The reason was the one given each dry season for the last four years – too long without rain had left too little water in reservoirs to turn the turbines and generate power. Kenya Power Ltd., the national electricity utility, has so far always managed to avoid a full shutdown, instead turning off just a few turbines at a time. But to make up the gap it has turned to more expensive – and polluting – diesel generators to keep the country plugged in.
Now, however, another clean source of power may help fill the gap: Geothermal power. Over more than a decade, Kenya has invested over $1 billion in tapping the country’s underground steam, including a $400 million loan from Japan to develop geothermal wells that are expected to come online in 2019 with 140 megawatts (MW) of new power.
The country already gets about 675 MW of the electricity it needs from geothermal power – about a quarter of its total needs – which makes Kenya Africa’s largest geothermal producer, and the eighth largest in the world, according to the country’s Energy Regulatory Commission.
With new green power being added from geothermal, solar and wind energy, hydropower now accounts for just 45 percent of the country’s energy mix, down from around 60 percent a decade ago, according to Energy Principal Secretary Joseph Njoroge.
That has helped shore up power supplies and hold the line on prices, said Isaac Kiva, the renewable energy secretary in the energy ministry.
PLENTY OF STEAM
Kenya has tapped less than 10 percent of the geothermal energy it would like to. Experts say that reserves of steam in Kenya’s Rift Valley region could generate up 10,000 MW, double the target set by the government’s Vision 2030 development plan.
Geothermal could help many countries in East Africa tap into more sustainable, reliable and clean energy in a region that is facing worsening droughts linked to climate change and strained hydropower production.
The East Africa region is estimated to have a geothermal potential of more than 22,000 MW of electricity, according to the African Rift Geothermal Development Facility (ARGeo), a project of the United Nations Environment Programme.
It believes Kenya and Ethiopia lead in terms of geothermal potential, with 10,000 MW each. The next highest-ranked countries, Djibouti, Tanzania and Uganda, range from 1,000 MW to 450 MW, according to ARGeo figures.