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ENVIRONMENT-AFRICA: Kenya Makes Business Sense of Renewable Energy

Wanjohi Kabukuru* - IPS/IFEJ

NAIROBI, Dec 4 2006 (IPS) - The 12th session of the Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came to an end in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, recently with little mention of cleaner sources of energy.

This was troubling, given the huge potential for such energy sources in Africa – and the fact that a third of the world’s population, the bulk coming from the continent, currently has no access to electricity.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, wood is amongst the main forms of energy in most rural homes in the developing world.

In Africa, renewable energy alternatives like solar, wind and geothermal resources remain largely untapped with the exception of Kenya, which obtains about 150 megawatts (MW) – 10 percent of its energy – from wells in the Rift Valley in East Africa. The power produced by geothermal means proved critical during the drought in 2001, when hydroelectric plants closed down for want of water.

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, governments turned down a proposal seeking to force countries to produce 10 percent of their energy needs from sustainable energy sources.

Geothermal energy, derived from rocks as hot as 345 degrees centigrade below the surface of the earth, is abundant in the Rift Valley: a giant fissure running 9,500 km from Lebanon to Mozambique.

“The potential of geothermal power in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia stands at 3,000, 1,000 and 250 megawatts respectively. Of these Kenya, which leads in terms of exploitation of this energy, has only managed to harness some 150 megawatts. Ethiopia has exploited two megawatts and Uganda nil,” observed Stephen Karekezi, director of the African Energy Policy Research Network, a Nairobi-based think tank.

Kenya has announced plans to up the contribution of geothermal energy in its power supply to 22 percent by 2019. Other countries exploiting geothermal sources include the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Italy, Indonesia and Philippines; one of the oldest plants in the world has been in operation since 1904 in Lardarello, Italy.

David Yuko, a Kenyan renewable energy consultant, makes a strong case for geothermal power in developing countries as a far cheaper alternative to large-scale conventional energy systems that require massive investment.

“Plants can be built on a modular basis, and can be scaled up as resources become available. Most renewable energy technologies are available at modest capital costs. Geothermal power reduces the import of fossil fuels, and this alone saves foreign exchange earnings,” he argues.

“It is neither susceptible to drought nor is it subject to the direct effects of the globally volatile fossil fuel prices.”

Kenya launched surface geothermal exploration soon after independence from Britain in 1963. Two wells were drilled at Olkaria in Naivasha, some 100 km from Nairobi. In the 1970s, more feasibility surveys were carried out between Olkaria and Lake Bogoria, a hot water spring lake in the Rift Valley.

In 1981 Africa’s first ever geothermal power plant was commissioned, providing some 15 MW to the Kenyan power grid. By 1986, geothermal energy was figuring prominently in all the country’s power plans.

There are myriad uses for this clean form of energy which releases negligible quantities of carbon dioxide compared to emissions from oil fired plants. Fumes belching from geothermal power plants are mostly eco-friendly steam vapour.

At a horticultural farm in Naivasha, geothermal heat is used to control night time humidity levels so as to alleviate incidences of fungal diseases. In nearby Eburru, low temperature geothermal steam is used for drying pyrethrum flowers.

‘The Price of Power’, an authoritative dossier prepared by the New Economics Foundation, a think tank in the United Kingdom, takes a dim view of fossil fuel energy for Africa. It notes that a year’s worth of World Bank spending on conventional power projects, if redirected to small-scale solar installations in Africa, would provide 10 million people with electricity.

Karekezi said that in Kenya, the economic benefits of renewable energy sources opened the door to environmentally-sound initiatives using these sources. “We increased the uptake of renewable energies by stressing economic benefits such as job creation, lower energy costs and import bills. People are more concerned about economic problems because of the serious levels of poverty. The environment is fairly low on the priority list of many communities and governments,” he noted.

New jobs have also been created through the construction, maintenance and operation of geothermal energy sources in Kenya. According to Yuko, “Niche markets, especially for direct geothermal energy applications, have taken advantage of emerging opportunities.”

(* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service – and IFEJ, the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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