Poznan, 9 December 2008 - A century-old energy technology that taps steam from hot underground rocks is poised for a massive expansion up East Africa's Rift Valley in the 21st century.
The news comes as countries across the world, from Guatemala to Papua New Guinea, are beginning to plug into geothermal energy as a new and promising alternative to coal and oil-fired power generation.
Today the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) announced the completion of project testing advanced seismic and drilling techniques in Kenya that has exceeded all expectations.
Wells of steam, able to generate 4-5 MW of electricity and one yielding a bumper amount of 8MW, have been hit using the new technology.
It could mean a saving of as much as $75 million for the developer of a 70MW installation as well as reduced electricity costs for generators and consumers, experts estimate.
The results, announced at the UN climate convention conference in Poznan, Poland have now paved the way for an international effort in 2009 to expand geothermal up and down the Rift which runs from Mozambique in the South to Djibouti in the North.
The project, funded by the GEF and involving UNEP and the Kenyan power company KenGen, could also transform the prospects and costs for geothermal elsewhere in the world.
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "Combating climate change while simultaneously getting energy to the two billion people without access to it are among the central challenges of this generation. Geothermal is 100 per cent indigenous, environmentally-friendly and a technology that has been under-utilized for too long".
"There are least 4,000MW of electricity ready for harvesting along the Rift. It is time to take this technology off the back burner in order to power livelihoods, fuel development and reduce dependence on polluting and unpredictable fossil fuels. From the place where human-kind too its first faltering steps is emerging one of the answers to its continued survival on this planet," he added.
Monique Barbut, Chief Executive Officer and Chairperson of the GEF, said: "Overcoming the economic and technical hurdles to renewable energy generation is part of our shared responsibility. The work in the Rift Valley is demonstrating that geothermal is not only technologically viable but cost effective for countries in Africa where there an overall potential of at least 7,000MW".
"Indeed geothermal world-wide is undergoing a renaissance with the numbers of countries starting to use this power source estimated to rise from around 20 in 2000 to close to 50 by 2010. Africa's Rift Valley will I hope become a beacon for further geothermal acceleration in terms of the size and the number of power plants alongside its geographical spread across the developed and developing world".
The Project in Kenya
The GEF-funded project has, over the past three years used techniques known as Micro Seismic and Magneto Telluric surveys and studies for identifying promising new drilling sites at locations including Olkaria, Naivasha which is around one hour's drive from the capital Nairobi.
Here a geothermal plant generating 45MW has been operating for a quarter century. A second plant was brought on stream in 2000 with a capacity of 70 MW.
The main challenge to expansion in Kenya and elsewhere along the Rift has been the risk associated with drilling and the high costs if steam is missed.
The nearly $1million Joint Geophysical Imaging project has aimed to overcome these risks. The old wells in Naivasha generate about two MW whereas the new techniques have not only boosted the chances of hitting steam but have pinpointed wells of much higher potential, typically on average four to five MW.
Rift Geothermal Expansion
Two years ago the GEF Council approved the Africa Rift Valley Geothermal Development Facility (ARGeo) backed with close to $18 million of funding and involving UNEP and the World Bank.
The project, which will underwrite the risks of drilling in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, is now set to commence in early 2009 and will be able to call on the equipment and techniques piloted by KenGen and UNEP.
The ARGeo initiative has strong support from Iceland, one of the world's leading geothermal economies where well over 90 per cent of its electricity comes from 'hot rock' and hydro, as well as Germany which is also developing this energy technology.
Separately Kenya and private investors are also seeking support funding from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol for a further 35MW extension which is currently in the validation stage.
Kenya's current electricity capacity is around 1,000MW. The country relies heavily on hydro-electric plants, generation systems that have in recent years suffered as a result of low rainfall and water supplies.
The country has set itself a goal of generating 1,200MW from geothermal by 2015.
A contract has recently been awarded to a Chinese company to drill as part of the development of a new Olkaria IV plant. As a result of the UNEP-GEF Joint Geophysical Imaging project the number of wells likely to be needed to achieve 70MW could be 15 versus over 30 using the previous technology. This could save as much as $5 million for each well drilled.
UNEP-GEF is currently in discussions with the Ministry of Water and Environment o the Yemen to explore for geothermal there in early 2009.
More countries in the region with geothermal resources have also signalled their enthusiasm to participate in the geothermal expansion including the Comoro Islands, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
Notes to Editors
Over 12 new geothermal projects are in the pipeline or have been registered under the CDM according to an analysis by UNEP's Risoe energy centre in Denmark.
These include two in El Salvador, totalling close to 50MW; one in Guatemala for 25MW; four in Indonesia totalling 200MW; Nicaragua, 66MW; Papua New Guinea, 55MW and two in the Philippines totalling 60MW.
Estimates by the Earth Policy Institute in Washington indicate that globally, geothermal capacity rose from 1,300MW in 1975 to close to 8,000MW in 2000 and stood at almost 10,000MW in 2007. The institute estimates that by 2010, geothermal capacity could have reached 13,500MW.
The United States is the world leader in terms of capacity with around 3,000MW followed by the Philippines with close to 2,000MW followed by Indonesia with 1,000MW.
A separate study in the GHC Bulletin from September 2007 estimates that geothermal could grow by 900 per cent in Papua New Guinea; over 100 per cent in Iceland and by 90 per cent in Turkey.
A new and separate assessment coordinated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates that the United States could provide a significant slice of its base-load electricity from geothermal.
It says that the US has enough geothermal potential to generate 100,000 MW (100 GW) of base-load electricity by 2050 by investing in enhanced geothermal systems.
Current total energy generation in the US is somewhere under 1,000GW of which between 0.23 per cent to 0.4 per cent is estimated to be geothermal according to various sources..
The report says that there is a widely-held view that high, exploitable levels of geothermal resources do not exist in the US.
But the report says: "Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) represent a large, indigenous resource that can provide base-load electric power and heat at a level that can have a major impact on the United States while incurring minimal environmental impacts".
Combined public and private investment of $800 million to a $1 billion is needed over 15 year-period needed to get it up and running commercially and to realize 100GW by 2050. Somewhere over $200 million of this is needed to achieve a break even point with coal.
This is equal to total Research and Development in the past 30 years globally on EGS and still less than the cost of a single, new generation, clean-coal power plant.
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