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Geothermal energy: ‘in Kenya alone, there is a potential of approximately 10,000 MW of electric power’

Nicholas Mariita

Interview with Dr Nicholas Mariita, Chief Geothermal Training Officer, KenGen, Kenya.  He is a speaker at the upcoming EAPIC in the geothermal track on “Drilling technologies and capabilities.”

Describe your organisation’s activities in the geothermal industry.
Currently, the Electrical power generation in Kenya stands at around 1597MW. Kenya Electricity Generating company Ltd (KenGen) generates 78% of this power, which comes from Hydro Power plants(766MW), Thermal Power plants (174MW), Wind Power plant (5.3MW) and Geothermal Power plants 150MW (Olkaria I-45MW & OlkariaII-105MW). The other 22% of power comes from the Independent Power Producers (IPP), which produces Thermal power (267MW) and Geothermal 52MW.

To attain vision 2030, Kenya needs to increase electrical production from 1597MW to around 17,760MW in order to satisfy the projected power peak demand of 15,000MW in year 2030. This demands a 1200% expansion of power generation, of which, approximately 7000MW will come from Geothermal resources. Thus, huge capacity development is required to increase Geothermal power generation from the current 202MW to approximately 7000MW.

Two main companies in Kenya are involved on power production from geothermal resources, i.e., KenGen and the Geothermal Development Company (GDC). GDC is a new entrant and currently only own geothermal wells which are planned to be connected to a power plant in the near future. KenGen has the largest share, producing 150MW of the 2002MW of power from geothermal in the country. Currently KenGen is constructing a 280MW Plant at Olkaria, Olkaria 1unit 1V and V and Olkaria 1V.The steam for these wells have already been drilled and capped in the wells awaiting the power station.

Another major stride in KenGen’s strategy is the early revenue program where wellheads are installed in individual wells to enable early generation and hence early revenue. KenGen intends to install up to 15 wellheads with a total capacity of 75MW. The pilot projects have been implemented with great success at Ebburu and Olkaria OW-37. KenGen has also acquired two new state of the art rigs to be used in further drilling and exploration activities within and without Olkaria, this brings the total number of rigs owned by KenGen to 3.The aim is to reduce dependence on hired rigs for drilling. All these projects currently being implemented by KenGen are in line with their key geothermal development goal, to make geothermal energy the prime mover for generating base load electricity in the country instead of hydro.

Can, and should, other Rift Valley countries follow the Kenyan geothermal development model?

The presence of the rift valley in the Eastern Africa region favours the development of geothermal energy. The Great Rift Valley, running from Middle East to Mozambique (through Ethiopia, North & South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi) has a great potential for Geothermal energy. The Rift valley is a zone where the geothermal manifestations (hot springs, fumaroles, geysers) are imminent. For example in Kenya alone, there is a potential of approximately 10,000 Mega Watts (MW) of electric power. The Kenyan Government has embarked on Geothermal Energy development since it is  a “Green & Renewable” energy with minimal environmental degradation compared to the other sources. Further, it is an available natural resource in the country with minimal running cost once it is installed. It is recommended that those Eastern African countries through which the rift runs need to emulate the Kenya example.

What are the most interesting technical advancements to improve the viability of geothermal in Africa?
The presence of the rift valley in the Eastern Africa region favours the development of geothermal energy. The East African countries of Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia all lie in the highly volcanic East African Rift, a zone with the geothermal manifestations of hot springs, fumaroles, and geysers. Geothermal development in this region (especially in Kenya) has been assisted by many agencies such as the European Investment Bank, the United Nations Development Program, the United States Department of Energy, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and the United Nations University.

By and large, the projects supported by these agencies have been highly focused on specific objectives or locations, and have had limited time and operational constraints. Assistance has been in form of exploration for geothermal energy resources, direct financing for power plant construction and technology transfer by taking students abroad for specialised training in geothermal energy prospecting and utilization. These former students (now professionals) are also assisted in attending international conferences at which they present technical papers and exchange information with other experts dedicated to geothermal industry.

Kenya is leading in this region in the development of this indigenous resource, largely due to government commitment and well trained workers. Large investments have been made in training local personnel in geothermal exploration development and production activities. Since the 1970s the majority of these professionals have attended courses in the United Nations University in Iceland, the University of Iceland, Pisa University in Italy, Kyushu University in Japan and the Geothermal Institute of Auckland in New Zealand, utilising financial sponsorship of the host institutions, international and bilateral agencies. These professional are being used in advancing use of Geothermal Energy in the country. They are heavily involved in activities from exploration, drilling, assessment and exploitation using state-of-the-art technology. These Kenyan have been invited to other countries in the region (Uganda, Zambia, Rwanda and Djibouti) to carry out consultancy work.

What are the most important regulatory issues that will impact the growth of African Geothermal?
The countries of the East African Rift System (EARS) have a considerable geothermal energy potential. Only Kenya has made significant efforts to harness this potential so far. To develop this resource, it has developed a geothermal development Act of Parliament. Most countries of the EARS have no strategy and inadequate legislative and regulatory frameworks for the development of the geothermal subsector. Existing regional initiatives are mostly focussing on exploration and site/project-specific activities such as (pre-) feasibility studies, project implementation planning, negotiation of power purchase agreements.

Kenya has scaled up plans to develop and generate electricity from geothermal resources. Social change is inherent to and inevitable with any development. Whilst development aims to bring about positive change, it can lead to conflicts as well. In the past, the promotion of economic growth as the driver for increased wellbeing was the main development thrust with little sensitivity to adverse social impacts. The need to ensure long term benefits and avoid adverse impacts led to the concept of sustainable development. A regulatory watchdog (National Environmental Management Authority, NEMA) has been set up to oversee and ensure sustainable development of projects, including geothermal. Environmental Impact Assessment, EIA, and Environmental Management Plans, EMP, are mandatory.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is a project-based mechanism designed to promote investment in projects that reduce or sequester emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) in developing countries, under the Kyoto Protocol (UNFCCC). The Kyoto Protocol, which was created out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and entered into force in February 2005, commits signatories from the industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide and methane by an average of 5.2% in the period 2008 – 2012. Kenya has a growing interest in geothermal development along the country’s expansive rift valley. It has therefore ratified the Kyoto protocol, through which it is seeking geothermal development from CDM financing.