Nairobi, 07 December 2010 - The landscape around Navaisha town, about an hour's drive from Kenya's capital, Nairobi, is dotted with snaking smooth white pipes and steel drums rather like a modern day snakes-and-ladders set built into the steep valley escarpments, just below pockets of billowing steam floating into the air.
Glance down towards the expanding Olkaria Geothermal Power Station, probably the world's only energy station in a national park - Hell's Gate National Park - and giraffes graze close to the fence, seemingly unfazed by the noise and whirr of electricity producing turbines.
Stored in the planet's crust, geothermal energy is clean, it's renewable, it can be tapped from around the world and it could be big business in Kenya. The source of Kenya's pot of energy gold is the Great Rift Valley - a geographical and geological feature running north to south for around 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometres) from northern Syria to central Mozambique in East Africa. Astronauts say it is the most significant physical detail on the planet visible from space. It could also be one of Africa's most important clean energy sources for the twenty-first century.
Geothermal energy is a century old technology. It is harnessed from underground reservoirs, containing hot rocks (250-350 degrees Celsius) saturated with water and steam. Boreholes of up to 3000 metres are drilled into these reservoirs, whereupon hot water and steam are then piped up to a geothermal power plant and used to drive electric generators to create power.
Kenya is on an ambitious energy trajectory as part of its "Vision 2030" to generate a minimum of 3000 Megawatts in the next twenty years. Geothermal will be a central pillar of this and judging by the expansion plans already underway for a fourth power plant (Olkaria IV) and significant expansion of Olkaria I with units IV and V, expected to be completed by 2012, it could well be on track.
The expansion will bring the output of power from the Olkaria power plant from the current 150 MW up to 430 MW, or almost 40% of Kenya's annual requirement. Some estimates say that Kenya boasts massive geothermal potential, potentially as high as 7,000 Megawatts. If Kenya continues on the path to achieving its 2030 goals, it could be the first African country to export geothermal energy.
Importance of renewable energy for a Green Economy
It is widely accepted that the most important determinant in making the transition to a Green Economy from the wasteful, polluting and ultimately unsustainable brown economy is energy - where we find it, how we use it, how we recycle it.
The world, as a whole, needs to be more efficient in its use of energy - and needs to develop new, renewable sources if we are to lessen an excessive dependence on the fossil fuels - oil, gas and coal. Expanded use of geothermal power could be one major advance combining economic, social and environmental benefits needed for true sustainable development.
At a continental level, the energy sector in most parts of Africa is characterized by an acute energy crisis due to high oil prices, persistent droughts and unrivalled demand from unprecedented population growth.
In turn, Kenya's energy scene is dominated by two primary factors; a predominant reliance on dwindling biomass energy resource to meet the energy needs of rural households and heavy dependence on imported petroleum to meet modern economic needs.
"Soon Kenya will be able to meet half of its power requirement through geothermal steam fields. Meanwhile, it has shown all other countries of the African Rift that geothermal power is a competitive, reliable and environment friendly solution," says Peerke de Bakker, UNEP energy expert, Nairobi, Kenya.
Kenya recognizes geothermal power as one sustainable form of indigenous energy, all this set against a background of diminishing prospects for exploitable large hydropower resources and unstable international hydrocarbon fuel prices.
Where to drill?
In a large landscape with untapped resources deep underground, finding the most productive areas to drill can be a little like throwing a fishing rod into the sea and hoping a large shoal of fish will swim by.
With financial assistance from the Global Environment Fund, UNEP worked with the National Power Generation Utility of Kenya (KenGen) on a Joint Geophysical Imaging for Geothermal Reservoir Assessment project finishing in 2009. The project aimed to reduce the cost of renewable, nearly CO2-free geothermal power in Kenya through improved geophysical data, to more accurately locate underground geothermal potential.
"UNEP has been very instrumental in ensuring we get clean energy with the GEF. The joint study revealing the best well sites has minimized the expense of where to drill. Initially, the wells were shallow and low production (between 1 and 5 MW) but with UNEP's study we were able to identify others that were much more productive and now the average well is 3000 metres and produces between 5 and 15 MW," says Cyrus W. Karingithi, Assistant Manager, Resource Development, KenGen.
As a result of the UNEP-GEF Joint Geophysical Imaging (JGI) project, it's estimated that the number of wells needed to achieve 70MW could be 15 instead of 30 or 33 wells, realizing savings of approximately USD 5 million per well. The JGI project has helped to significantly decrease the cost of geothermal electricity as well as increase well production and reducing C02 emissions.
Olkaria Geothermal Power Project is adjacent to farms that produce some of the finest flowers in the world. The "Oserian" flower farm makes good use of geothermal energy from the less productive, but already existing wells that were drilled before the testing phase and the UNEP/DGEF intervention.
Geothermal heat is not only used to power the greenhouses but heated air pushed through the vents acts as a natural fungicide. Oserian's growing techniques include hydroponics, geothermal heating and CO2 enrichment along with natural pest management using predatory mites that feed on red spider mites.
"We aim to run a farm that is solely operated on eco-friendly, alternative energy sources leaving a carbon free footprint. We currently operate the largest geothermal greenhouse heating project in the world combing geothermal heating and carbon dioxide. Geothermal energy has made a greener business, reduced the need to farm more extensively and allow us to release land back to conservation," says Hamish Ker, Oserian Production Director.
Where once were wheat fields and flower farms, now wildlife roams on a 20,000 acre conservancy and migrates from Naivasha to Oserian and on to Hell's Gate National Park through a 3,000 acre game corridor. In 15 years, the land has reverted to being bush and savannah. White rhino, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, leopard and a solitary male lion from the Nakuru region are just some of the species now integrated back into the landscape. Geothermal energy, aside from supplying power is successfully driving business and conservation, with one feeding and supporting the other.
From micro to macro
Based on its extensive expertise in geothermal power, KenGen has already assisted neighbouring countries, including Rwanda, Eritrea and Zambia in the assessment and development of their geothermal resources.
In addition and owing to the successful completion of the JGI project, UNEP in collaboration with the World Bank has initiated a regional project in six east African countries, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to tap into the Rift Valley's vast, unexplored geothermal potential.
The African Rift Geothermal project (ARGeo Project) is funded by a GEF contribution of US$ 17.75 Million. This programme now intends to provide a platform for accelerated geothermal development and stimulate geothermal investments in the region.
Initial estimates indicate that these investments could lead to 891,458 tons of CO2 emission savings per year and up to 17.8 million tons over 20 years. Given the demonstration and "snow-ball" effect of the ARGeo project, it's expected that these pilot projects will generate yet more interest in geothermal technologies in other countries of the Rift Valley (Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, and Madagascar and Yemen, on the Arabian side of the Rift).
This kind of innovation is not only a boon for Africa, but also attracts foreign expertise and investment. During the exploratory drilling, KenGen used local equipment but now uses the Great Wall of China Drilling Company for deeper and more efficient wells - another demonstration of South South Cooperation.
Where could it lead to?
Governments are meeting in November in Cancun, Mexico for the next round of UN climate negotiations. Current commitments and pledges under the Copenhagen Accord covering emissions up to 2020 provide a good platform for global action, but the level of current ambition is widely viewed as insufficient to meet a 2 degree warming limit.
Geothermal expansion is just one of the many ways in which we can meet the climate change. Clean energy is about powering the future, providing jobs, industry and opportunities. The challenge is now is to accelerate and scale-up these world-wide transitions.
The Cradle of Civilisation, the Great Rift Valley, is where humanity took is first faltering steps. Today it can play a critical role to assist with humanity's most overarching challenge: how to break the cycle of plunder and pollute. Projects like this could be a foundation upon which a zero- emission East Africa -with increasing access to energy and development opportunities for millions of people can be built.
The ARGeo project has been supported by various stakeholders including the participating governments and their utilities and agencies, and multilateral and bilateral institutions such as the World Bank, UNEP, IGA, ICEIDA (Icelandic International Development Agency), BGR (German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources), USTDA, USDOE, etc. In particular, the Bank and UNEP will jointly implement the program; with the Bank focusing on the Risk Mitigation Facility (RMF) and post exploration drilling activities and UNEP on technical assistance with emphasis on regional knowledge sharing and technical assistance for the upstream pre-drilling stage.
For further information, please contact:
UNEP Newsdesk/Nairobi, firstname.lastname@example.org , Tel. +254 20 7623088