Kenya has led the way in developing its geothermal energy resources – with support from the land of ice and fire, Iceland. Can its neighbours catch up?
Africa is breaking apart – literally. From the Gulf of Aden in the north, all the way to Mozambique in the south, the African continental plate is splitting along the East African Rift Valley. The two halves of the continent are moving apart by around half a centimetre a year. At this rate, within five to ten million years East Africa will have drifted off to become its own continent.
The good news is that the forces deep beneath the Earth’s surface that are responsible for this tectonic divorce provide Africa with a potentially vast supply of renewable energy. At numerous points throughout the Rift Valley region, flows of molten magma in the rift create underground reservoirs of superheated steam and water. Where geological conditions allow, these geothermal resources can be piped to the surface and used to generate electricity, or harnessed directly for heating, or to drive cooling systems.
Of all the countries in the region, Kenya has made by far the most progress in exploiting its geothermal potential. “Kenya has excellent geothermal resources”, says Jack Kiruja, an associate programme officer at the International Renewable Energy Agency, who was previously an engineer at the Geothermal Development Company in Kenya. It has, however, taken decades to develop the sector in the country. “It’s been a really long journey that has led to the success that we see today,” says Kiruja.
Indeed, Kenya first started to explore its geothermal potential as far back as the 1950s. But the sector only really took off from the late 1990s onwards – as the country looked for a way to combat electricity supply problems stemming from an over-reliance on hydropower.
Kenya now has the eighth-largest geothermal production capacity in the world, at around 950 MW. This makes up almost half the country’s electricity generation.
Geothermal energy has the added benefit of providing a baseload power source – and the government is aiming to reach a capacity of just over 1,600 MW through its Vision 2030 programme. As part of this effort, KenGen, the national electricity utility, is developing the world’s largest geothermal power plant, Olkaria VI, in Hell’s Gate National Park.
The growth of geothermal energy in Kenya has depended on supportive government policies, as well as the expertise of Kenyan engineers. But to fully understand the geothermal journey in Kenya and the rest of Africa, it is necessary to take a detour to a small island on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
A nondescript office building on the outskirts of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, doesn’t seem like an obvious place to look for the origin story of Africa’s geothermal industry. But within these walls, the Geothermal Training Programme (GTP) – an institution affiliated with UNESCO and largely funded by Iceland’s government – has been helping geothermal professionals from around the world develop their skills and connections for over 40 years.
Guðni Axelsson, the GTP’s director, says that the concept for the training centre came about in the late 1970s, when Iceland was looking for ways to develop a foreign assistance programme. “The idea was to use this pool of expertise that exists here in Iceland to try to support something that is quite unique that Iceland can really contribute in a meaningful and effective way.”
Iceland, like East Africa, is sited on the junction of two tectonic plates that are moving apart. The country has a population of less than 400,000, but stands as a giant of the geothermal world. Although several other countries generate more megawatts of electricity from geothermal sources, there is nowhere else where geothermal energy plays such a vital role in society. Iceland derives around 30% of its electricity from geothermal sources, along with 90% of its heating.
The GTP began with just two students – but now accepts around 20-25 people per year onto its six-month training scheme. Since the beginning of the programme, at least 140 Kenyans have been trained at the GTP. Many of the Kenyan students have gone on to become leading figures in KenGen and the Geothermal Development Company, the parastatal companies chiefly responsible for geothermal projects in Kenya.
Axelsson says that the GTP “can take a little bit of the credit” for the growth of geothermal power in Kenya. “They have taken great steps in their development, and we believe we have helped quite a lot with that.”
“One simple way to view that,” says Axelsson, “is that Kenya has by now surpassed Iceland in the installed capacity for electricity generation from geothermal – and they’ve done it quite rapidly in recent years.”
Vikings in the sun
Iceland’s role in developing geothermal energy in Africa goes well beyond the GTP. Icelandic companies are developing geothermal projects in several parts of the continent. Technical consultancies also play a key role in delivering Icelandic expertise.