Kenya’s Geothermal Boom Could Help Power Africa
Beneath Kenya, the African tectonic plate is splitting in two. That cleave creates hydrothermal vents, ripe for harnessing geothermal energy. This is a renewable source of energy derived from hot water that bubbles up from deep underground. When it comes to the surface, it turns into steam. That steam can be used to spin a turbine connected to a generator, and voilá: electricity.
Kenya began to tap into this natural supply in the 1950s, and now the East African nation is the seventh largest geothermal energy producer in the world. The Kenyan government has said that the country’s untapped resources are enough to meet its peak energy demands five times over. That’s a big deal on a continent where more than 40% of people lack electricity.
Joining guest host Flora Lichtman to talk about this is Geoffrey Kamadi, a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Read Geoffrey’s original reporting about this topic in Science News here.
Geoffrey Kamadi is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
FLORA LICHTMAN: For the rest of the hour, we’re heading to East Africa, where the region’s geology is powering a renewable energy boom. Below Kenya, deep underground, the African continental plate is splitting in two. That continental cleave creates hydrothermal vents, and these vents are ripe for harnessing geothermal energy.
So as a reminder, geothermal is a renewable form of energy. Hot water bubbles up from deep underground. When it comes to the surface, it turns to steam. That steam spins a turbine connected to a generator and, poof, electricity. And Kenya is producing a lot of it. Half of Kenya’s energy production is from geothermal plants, and that amount is growing.
My next guest reported extensively about this for Science News. Geoffrey Kamadi is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Welcome to Science Friday.
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Thank you for having me.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Geoffrey, when did Kenya start investing in geothermal energy? Was the country ahead of the curve?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Yeah, so compared to most of the world or in Africa, it was very much ahead of the curve. The country started exploring its geothermal resources in the 1950s.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Is that because of its sort of specific geology?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Yeah, so the geology of the country favors geothermal exploration. The heat is much closer to the surface compared to most of the region or Africa. So it is much less expensive to explore the heat resource compared to other places.
FLORA LICHTMAN: What do the geothermal plants look like?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: They are comprised of a number of pipes that are coming from the geothermal wells away from the plant, some distance away, where the steam and the water is harvested and then pumped through a series of pipes to the power plant, where the turbines are, which are then used to turn the turbine to generate electricity.
FLORA LICHTMAN: What is the potential of this energy source? We said in the intro that half of Kenya’s energy production comes from geothermal plants. But how much power could Kenya theoretically produce using geothermal energy?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Kenya has been estimated to have 10,000 megawatts of geothermal energy. And currently, it produces less than 10% of this potential. So you can see the potential is a very, very big. And as the country continues to expand its geothermal energy production, there is a lot of potential for utilizing this energy source.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Is 10,000 megawatts a lot?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: It’s quite a lot. It can power the rest of the continent of Africa if harnessed–
FLORA LICHTMAN: What?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: –completely. Yes, so it’s huge
FLORA LICHTMAN: It could power the whole continent of Africa?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Yes.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Just the geothermal potential in Kenya alone could power all of Africa?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Yeah, so the 10,000 megawatts is quite a big, big energy source. So if it can be utilized to its fullest potential, then it can be a very big deal in terms of energy production in Kenya and Africa.
FLORA LICHTMAN: The continental rift that is prime for tapping into geothermal energy, how far does that stretch? Are other African countries sort of getting on the geothermal train?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Yeah, so the rift extends to a distance of more than 6000 kilometers. So it passes through 10 countries in Africa from up north in North Africa to down south f in Mozambique.
FLORA LICHTMAN: You explained in your reporting that more than 40% of Africa’s population lacks access to electricity. Do people think that geothermal could be a solution?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: That’s what the experts are saying, that geothermal energy has the potential of bringing the majority of the population online when it comes to access to electricity, especially considering the fact that very little of this potential has been tapped. So the potential to bring the vast majority of the population is there.
FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.
What are the barriers to opening new plants?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: So there is the cost implication of getting this resource. It’s very expensive to drill a well and connect it to a power plant or to build a new power plant. So it’s very, very costly. And the advantage that Kenya has is that these heat sources are much closer to the Earth’s surface compared to other parts of the world.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Got it. Even with the heat sources close to the surface, the upfront costs, are they still more expensive for geothermal, even in Kenya, than, say, fossil fuels?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: To drill a single well will cost around $6 million. And to build a power plant with a capacity of 165 megawatts, that would be around $300 million. So it’s very, very expensive indeed. But that’s the upfront cost. But in the long run, it’s much, much cheaper than these other energy sources.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Because once you have the well, it basically just runs.
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly right because energy production is 24 hours a day unless there is an issue with maintaining the power plant, for example, which cannot be said of these other energy sources like hydro, or wind, or solar. So that’s the major advantage of utilizing this energy resource.
FLORA LICHTMAN: And it doesn’t run out.
GEOFFREY KAMADI: No, it does not run out. It’s there.
FLORA LICHTMAN: [LAUGHS]
GEOFFREY KAMADI: It’s there 24 hours a day.
FLORA LICHTMAN: 24 hours a day, and you’re not going to just use it all up. Given the upfront costs, where does the money come from for new plants? Is the government investing, private industry?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: So the government is heavily involved when it comes to investing in the geothermal exploration in Kenya. And other partners also are involved, like the World Bank and other private entities as well.
FLORA LICHTMAN: You spoke to a lot of people in the course of your reporting. What is the long-term hope for the future of geothermal in East Africa?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: So the hope is to attract as many investors to come and utilize this energy resource. The other challenge is that the capacity to utilize this energy in Kenya is very, very low compared to other places. We do not have electric trains, for example. So there have been plans to come and set up, for example, green manufacturing parks in Olkaria, where this geothermal is being produced. And industries are being encouraged to utilize this energy. So the potential is very, very huge.
FLORA LICHTMAN: And people are excited about it. Is that your sense?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Exactly. For example, there has been this movement of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using these new technologies of the future. I’m sure you’ve read about direct air capture, for example. So there is a company that is coming in and is trying to see how it can utilize this green energy resource to remove atmospheric carbon and store it underground in the form of rocks. So this is still at the initial stages. So the potential for the utilization of this energy is big.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Is this a point of pride for Kenyans, to be at the forefront of renewable energy?
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Yeah. As a leader in geothermal exploration and expertise in the region, Kenya is very, very proud. You can see, for example, other countries are requesting the expertise from the country to help them explore their geothermal resources, in Djibouti, in Ethiopia, in the neighboring countries of Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and as far south as Zambia. So Kenya is very, very proud to be at the forefront of geothermal energy development in Africa.
FLORA LICHTMAN: That’s all we have time for. I’d like to thank my guest. Geoffrey Kamadi is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Thank you for joining us.
GEOFFREY KAMADI: Thank you for having me.