NAIVASHA, July 27 – Facing soaring electricity demands, Kenya is opting to go full steam ahead with geothermal energy to boost its production while preserving its rich environmental heritage.
The 37-million-strong nation’s electricity supply capacity is dangerously close to its limit at 1,080 megawatts when peak hour demand almost reaches 1,000 megawatts.
With a fast-growing economy and demography, demand is climbing by eight percent each year and the country’s hydro-electric capacity is peaking and being strained by chronic droughts and the impact of deforestation on rivers.
Aware of the urgent to find more power and the business community’s concerns, President Mwai Kibaki announced in late June a new plan to produce an extra 2,000 megawatts within 10 years, with 85 percent of the surge coming from geothermal plants.
The announcement has set abuzz the country’s main Olkaria plant, near the western town of Naivasha, where engineers and experts are actively discussing prospection and drilling plans.
Beneath the hooves of the giraffes and zebras populating the idyllic sceneries around Lake Naivasha lies the "white gold" that could solve Kenya’s energy problem.
Geothermal technology has come a long way since the Romans used it for bathing and heating: the KenGen plants in the Naivasha area are among the jewels of Kenya’s technical know-how.
The region’s underground is a geothermal hotspot, harbouring hot water sources and steam at 300 degrees Celsius that is piped up the surface from up two kilometres (6,500 feet) below.
When the mix reaches the plant, the water is separated from the steam, which powers a generator turbine thanks to the pressure and heat.
"We have exploited our entire hydro-electric potential. Because of deforestation and the resulting erosion of the ground, the dams get clogged up with silt. It’s a serious problem," says Silas Simiyu, one of the top experts in charge at Olkaria.
"Because geothermal energy is our only indigenous source of energy, we’re going for it. We can supply Kenya’s entire needs with geothermal alone," he says.
He estimates that the country has a geothermal potential of at least 3,000 megawatts due to its propicious geographical and geological parametres.
Since geothermal energy production began in Kenya in the 1980s, technology has evolved to help make it a cleaner process. The steam used to be lost and spewed by giant chimneys but the latest plants now function in closed circuit.
The water and condensation is collected and pumped back down two kilometres under the surface.
The major drawback of geothermal energy is the size of the initial investment, which has tended to scare away governments.
A megawatt of geothermal-produced electricity costs around three million dollars, 30 percent more than what coal-powered plants can offer.
"We’re at a real turning point in Kenya," said Jean-Pierre Marcelli, who heads the East Africa section of the French Development Agency (AFP).
"It’s a choice between a clean energy policy with low carbon emissions and the path of fossil energy, which may be more simple and require less investments but is infinitely more polluting," he explained.
The Kenyan authorities are fully aware that opting for geothermal projects at a time when greening the world’s economies and industries is high on the global agenda will earn them foreign backing.
Kenya’s geothermal energy plan is being supported with donations and preferential loans from the AFP, the World Bank and German cooperation.