“Our Impact on a More Sustainable World”: The Discovery of Kenya’s Remarkable Energy Source Beneath the Ground
The Great Rift Valley in Kenya is incredibly stunning. The expansive grasslands between the two steep slopes are full of animals, making it the site of one of the largest animal migrations on Earth – the Mara-Serengeti wildebeest migration. The alkaline lakes in the east African rift system are inhabited by majestic and graceful flamingos, which attract tourists from all over the world and play a crucial role in Kenya’s thriving tourism sector.
The valley floor in Kenya holds a significant amount of geothermal resources, which have greatly contributed to the country’s status as a top producer of renewable energy.
Peketsa Mangi is the general manager in charge of geothermal development at KenGen, the country’s energy generating company. “We are lucky the African rift runs through Kenya,” he told me when I visited last week. “We just happened to be in the right place with several volcanic centres. Olkaria is one of these centres.”
Mangi and I are currently seated in a gazebo, observing a spa pool that utilizes brine, a byproduct of the geothermal development procedure. People from various parts of Kenya visit this pool to experience its supposed “healing” effects. As a power plant operates in the vicinity, my initial visit to the core of Kenya’s geothermal energy production becomes an educational experience on what lies beneath us.
The Geological Society states that approximately 25 million years ago, the Somalian and Nubian tectonic plates moved apart in opposite directions. This movement caused the area between the two fault lines to sink, bringing magmatic fluids closer to the Earth’s surface. This resulted in the creation of the famous rift, a long valley stretching 6,400km from Jordan to Mozambique. Beneath the valley, water easily seeps through and mixes with hot rocks located 1-3km below the surface. This creates a mixture of superheated water (75%) and steam (25%) with an average temperature of 300C (572F) and pressures reaching 1,000 PSI. These conditions are ideal for producing geothermal energy.
Mangi explains that this is the steam we utilize to power the turbines for generating electricity. He acknowledges that it can be treacherous, but it is a crucial task.
For 27 years, Mangi has studied the valley’s patterns and is familiar with the ideal location for a geothermal well. He explains, “Kenya has the ability to conduct precise geoscientific research to pinpoint potential drilling sites. However, exploration and drilling are expensive, so investors prefer to have confirmed resources before investing in a new location.”
Geothermal energy had its start in the small settlement of Larderello, Italy in 1904. The small plant provided a mere 10kW of energy, just enough to power five lightbulbs. Since then, a number of countries have dug deep in order to exploit similar resources. The US, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey and New Zealand are the top five geothermal power producers in the world.
The exploration for subterranean energy in Kenya started almost seven decades ago, but quickly came to a halt. The government drilled two wells in 1956 with the goal of utilizing geothermal energy, reaching depths of 950 meters and 1,200 meters. According to Mangi, the average temperature was 235C (445F), but the wells were unsuccessful in producing any output due to limited permeability caused by the solid surroundings.
During the early 1970s, Kenya faced an oil crisis and looked to underground resources for a solution. Various international organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme, The World Bank, and Japan International Cooperation Agency offered financial and technical assistance for further exploration. In 1971, a successful well was drilled. This sparked renewed excitement, according to Mangi. From 1981 to 1985, Kenya’s first three power plants in Olkaria had a combined capacity of 45MW.
According to Mangi, it is difficult to predict the current state of the country if the oil crisis had not accelerated this development. Geothermal energy is constantly available and not impacted by weather changes because it utilizes water stored deep underground for thousands of years. Otherwise, diesel generators would have been installed, which harm the environment. This is our way of promoting a healthier environment.
At Olkaria, which is located near the town of Naivasha, known for its flower production, approximately 300 geothermal wells are utilized to generate steam for five power plants run by KenGen. These plants are situated 56 miles (90km) away from Nairobi.
Kenya ranks sixth globally and first in Africa for geothermal power development, with a combined capacity of 799MW from power plants and 15 wellheads. The country’s total geothermal power capacity is 988.7MW, including additional power produced by independent power producers.
Kenya currently obtains 91% of its energy from renewable sources, including 47% from geothermal, 30% from hydro, 12% from wind, and 2% from solar. The country aims to completely switch to renewable energy by 2030 and KenGen believes that it has the potential to produce up to 10,000MW of geothermal energy. This would exceed the current peak energy demand in Kenya, which is approximately 2,000MW. In comparison, peak time energy consumption in the UK is around 61,000MW.
Many wells are found in Hell’s Gate National Park, which was the inspiration for the movie The Lion King. The park is home to antelopes, giraffes, zebras, and buffaloes, all of which roam freely and are unaware of the powerful energy that lies beneath their feet. This energy is harnessed by a complex network of high-pressure pipes spanning an average of 74 miles (120km) and delivering it to nearby power plants.
According to safety officer Gastone Odhiambo, geothermal power is environmentally friendly and does not harm wildlife as they have adapted to it. The system involves pipes delivering steam at high temperatures of 180C (356F) to power turbines and generate 11 kilovolts of electricity. This is then increased to 220 kilovolts for distribution over long distances. It is crucial to have a clear mind as one mistake could have significant consequences for the country.
Odhiambo grew up in a home in western Kenya without electricity. He explains to me in the plant’s control room, filled with switches, dials, and strobe lights, that he was accustomed to living in darkness. He feels a great sense of duty in contributing to the production of sustainable energy that can last for generations. Understanding the impact of his tasks on the economy keeps him humble.
The current leader of Kenya, William Ruto, is leading an effort to encourage Africa to move away from using fossil fuels. In September of last year, a statement was agreed upon, urging changes in international finances and criticizing the developed countries for the unequal global financial system that hinders Africa’s ability to utilize its abundant renewable energy sources.
“According to the statement, Africa is home to approximately 40% of the world’s renewable energy resources. However, out of the total $3 trillion invested in renewable energy over the past ten years, only $60 billion, or 2%, has been allocated to Africa.”
As Kenya and other countries in Africa anticipate financial changes, the team at Olkaria’s geothermal plants find their work to be rewarding. According to Mangi, a successful day is when everything runs smoothly, from conducting scientific studies to securing financial resources and drilling a well that produces power for the country. This is a sign that the investments are being utilized effectively, and fortunately, this happens frequently.