Across all of East Africa, there’s potential for some 20,000 megawatts of geothermal energy, according to a report from agencies including the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa and the United Nations Environment Program.
But Kenya and the surrounding region face many challenges to harnessing its full geothermal potential. Lack of funding and technical expertise, poor governance, and corruption often hobble big infrastructure projects in developing countries.
And though geothermal is considered renewable energy, it does have pitfalls. While the Earth will most likely supply heat for millions of years, the underground water necessary to produce steam can be depleted if not recharged.
Yet from a geological perspective, Kenya’s geothermal conditions are ideal.
“The amount of volcanism is amazing,” Mr. Suemnicht said. “It’s in the center of the action.”
The East African Rift is one of the world’s largest rift valleys, about 3,700 miles in length and 30 to 40 miles across. It is slowly splitting the African continent apart at the rate of several millimeters each year.
“Rift settings have very high potential for geothermal,” Mr. Suemnicht said. “Most geothermal development occurs in tectonically active areas on Earth.”
Kenya is by far Africa’s geothermal leader, but nations such as Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Djibouti, Eritrea and Comoros have done preliminary exploration and Ethiopia generates about 7 megawatts of geothermal power.
Tapping geothermal energy is a long and expensive process that requires special expertise. From start to finish, it can take years from site-scouting to construction to connection to actually generating electricity — and revenue.
To find suitable spots for drilling steam wells, scientists do geological, geochemical and geophysical surveillance, a process that can take three months, said Xavier Musouye, a geologist with KenGen. When suitable spots are found and assessed, drilling begins using the kind of tall rigs commonly seen at oil wells. Except for periodic maintenance breaks, these drills pound into the earth 24 hours a day for nearly two months.
Credit Amy Yee
At a new well site in Hell’s Gate, the noise was deafening as gargantuan machinery pummeled the ground. The well will eventually reach a depth of almost two miles, joining the nearly 300 others already in place in the park.
It can cost about $6 million for a single well, and even with all the planning and testing there is still a risk of drilling an empty well. Two geothermal wells were explored in neighboring Rwanda but were unsuccessful, noted Dr. Meseret Zemedkun, energy program manager for the United Nations Environment Program.
Although it is a time-consuming process, there have been advancements to speed things along. KenGen recently started using a new kind of small power plant directly on the well head that can get up and running more quickly. These generate 7.5 megawatts compared with the large power stations that each generate 45, 105 and 140 megawatts.
Kenya, the first African country to tap geothermal power, began its programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s through funding primarily from the World Bank and guidance from the United Nations Development Program. But funders pulled out in the early 1990s amid government instability before returning toward the end of that decade.
The growth since then has been dramatic, and continues. KenGen is in the process of building a new 140-megawatt plant, financed by a $400 million loan from JICA, Japan’s development agency, that is expected to start running by 2018.
Although geothermal power has led to rapid expansion of electrical service here, there are environmental trade-offs. There is the conundrum of drilling in Hell’s Gate, a 26-square-mile area that is one of the country’s smaller parks but has been designated a Unesco world heritage site. Some environmentalists are critical of extracting geothermal energy here. They complain that pipes and power plants are environmentally disruptive and an eyesore.
Elizabeth Mwangi-Gachau, chief environmental officer for KenGen, said the company conducts environmental assessments and tries to mitigate impact. It considers wildlife migration and behavior in its development plans. Ms. Mwangi-Gachau added that KenGen has refrained from drilling in parts of Hell’s Gate that would compromise the flora and fauna, even where there is major geothermal potential.
Ms. Zemedkun of U.N.E.P. pointed out that environmentally friendly geothermal projects have been developed around the world — even within national park areas, including in the United States, Italy, Iceland, New Zealand and Japan.
At Hell’s Gate, the otherworldly network of geothermal pipes can be an attraction for some tourists. KenGen has even opened a geothermal spa, following the lead of an Icelandic power company that opened the Blue Lagoon spa, a signature attraction that uses water harnessed by a nearby geothermal power plant to warm its pools.
On a sunny afternoon, groups of Kenyans basked in the spa’s azure water. They weren’t fazed by the sight of steel pipes at a nearby geothermal wellhead. Overhead, odorless white steam floated into the air to mingle with the clouds streaking the Kenyan sky.