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China-Kenya geothermal partnership points to brighter future

By Kenyan journalist Njeri Kimani, first published on Khuluma Africa

“The first night I got electricity in my house I kept on blowing the bulb for it to go off, just like I was used to blowing my tin lamp”, laughs 72-year-old Jane Awinja.

The potential to harvest geothermal energy in Kenya is enormous, given its rich energy resources and location along the Rift Valley.

Three years after she got electricity under the Last Mile Connectivity Project, an ambitious project  by the Kenyan government that seeks to provide universal access to electricity in the whole country, Awinja, who lives in Kisulisuli area of Nakuru, is still excited by having electricity in her house.

Perhaps unknowingly, she will never realize that the reality of her dream to one day read her Good News Bible without the smoke emitting from her tin lamp, choking her or clouding her eyes, was made possible by the Chinese government hundreds of kilometers away.

“I sincerely thought I would die without ever seeing electricity in my homestead. I had lived the whole of my life using a lantern lamp to provide the light, which often ran out of Kerosene”said 65-year-old Hellen Wangui, who lives in Njoro area in Nakuru.

While solving the energy equation in the country cannot be linked to providing bulbs only, many admit that it is a huge step in increasing the potential growth of an area. For a village that has been engrossed in deep darkness for decades, a switched on bulb was nothing short of a miracle.

“I did my homework all throughout my education from light coming from a piece of wood. It was the only thing that would illuminate and hence it was a great struggle to study. The only other option would have been doing my assignments in the evening. However, I always arrived home tired from classes and the evening was marked with many chores I had to attend to, which in turn pulled down my performance. The fact that my two girls can now have a smooth passage through their education is a welcome relief”, said 35-year-old Emily Muthoni.

In 2016 China and Kenya signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the investment of Sh100 billion (US$987 million) in Kenya’s energy sector over the next 30 years, as stated by the then Kenyan Energy and Petroleum Cabinet Secretary, Charles Keter.

Keter said the partnership with the Chinese government would speed up measures to ensure extra geothermal power is accessible, which will in turn ensure that citizens can get access to low-cost and consistent power.

China’s investment into the Kenyan geothermal sector has seen the country being ranked the ninth globally in geothermal production, with Iceland holding the eight position and Japan being the tenth as per the Renewables Global Status Report 2017. With low rates of electrification, geothermal provides a cheaper and better option for supplying the national grid.

Kenyans can now afford cheap and reliable power, with cost of electricity decreasing to 0.90 cents per kilowatt hour from 2.51 cents per hour. This has been reflected in the expansion of businesses for the Kenyan markets as well as the development of industries.

In 2015, the Chinese Export Import Bank gave Kenya a $400 million loan to finance the drilling of geothermal steam, contracting the Great Wall Drilling Company for the project. The project was slated to drill 80 wells through the Great Wall Drilling company but they were able to oversee the drilling of ten more geothermal wells, according to former KENGEN (Kenya Electricity Generating Company) CEO Albert Mugo, who oversaw the drilling of the wells during his tenure. In a previous interview Mugo said that the financial aid which was initially meant for drilling  80 wells ended up getting ten more geothermal wells. He attributed this to the efficiency and expertise of the Great Wall Drilling Company personnel who were able to utilize the available funds well.

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta has hailed the Chinese government for its support in boosting the sector, saying it will help expand the energy sector. Kenyatta attributes the increased production to the extension of financial and technical expertise by the Chinese government. This has made Kenya the leading geothermal electricity producer in Africa.

“This form of energy is not subject to the vagaries of the weather, and that it runs at a respectable rate of more than 90 percent of the time every year, means that we can bring reliable power to every Kenyan home”said the President at the 2018 African Union Summit in Addis Ababa.

The potential to harvest geothermal in Kenya is enormous, given its rich energy resources and its location along the Rift Valley. The valley divides the country into two regions, the north and the south. According to a 2015 study by the Ministry of Energy, Kenya has the potential to  generate 10,000 MW of geothermal power from the Rift Valley basin which can in turn supply the country with electricity for the next twenty years. In a country that grappled with the lack of adequate access to energy signified by increased rationing and unscheduled blackouts, the interruption of electric supply amplified harsh living conditions and delayed economic growth.

Geothermal is slated to be the future dominant source of electricity as Kenya gets rid of reliance on hydro power. According to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in January 2017, thermal power generation stood at 197 million KWh and rose to peak at 274 million KWh in June 2017. The increase put thermal power in the country to 32 percent of the electricity consumed, against hydropower at 21 percent.

Geothermal is becoming Kenya’s predominant source of energy. Kenya completed a 29 MW addition at the Olkaria III complex in Naivasha, according to the Renewable Status Report of 2016.

The report states that at the end of 2016 Kenya’s total operating capacity was about 630 MW, a significant injection into the national grid. According to Global Renewable Report of 2017, Kenya completed a 29 MW addition at the Olkaria III complex in 2016, increasing the facility’s capacity to 139 MW

The report also ranked Kenya fourth globally for new geothermal power capacity.

China has hence been seen as a savior in the country, with huge investments leading to a steady supply of electricity. The International Energy Agency (IEA) commends Chinas role in the electricity expansion in the area, citing that over half of the power projects were clean renewable energy.

In the last few years, Kenya has injected at least 6,000 megawatts of geothermal energy in the national grid. This has been achieved through the partnership with the Chinese government.

“African countries have relied heavily on China to support the expansion of their electricity systems, to enable growth and improve living standards,” said Paul Simons, the IEA’s Deputy Executive Director.

Kenya boasts of being the leader in geothermal production on the African continent.

Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, through his Last Mile Connectivity Project, pointed out that the government has been able to increase access to electricity for Kenyans from 28 percent to over 60 percent within a period of four years. He was speaking during the 30th Ordinary Session of the African Union in 2018 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The round table meeting sought to increase power supply through cross border networks.

Kenya intends to inject 5,000 MW of geothermal power making it the largest source of clean energy as is stipulated in the country’s Vision 2030. The vision is the national long-term development policy that aims to transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country and seeks to generate 230,000 MW of clean energy. Initiated by former President Mwai Kibaki, the plan seeks to  provide the energy required to propel growth and mobilize the private sector capital for generation of electricity from renewable energy.

On 28 January 2016, the First G20 Energy Sustainability Working Group Meeting was held in Xiamen. It was hosted by the National Energy Administration of China (NEA) and had about 150 delegates, including key government officials in the energy sector, from Kenya in attendance. The representation of Kenya on this important forum not only indicated its significance among key geothermal producers but also signified its commitment to get clean and affordable energy. Among the topics that were discussed were energy access, clean energy, energy efficiency and global energy governance.

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