Kenya: Will Geothermal Energy Bring Power to the People?
Kenya is investing lots of hope and money in the Bogoria-Silali
geothermal energy complex which it hopes will boost industry and
encourage clean energy consumption.
Article | 30 January 2013 - 4:19pm | By Daniel Wesangula
Stephen Samoei Magut looks calmly at the columns of steam escaping the
cracked earth in Kenya's vast Kerio Valley. The picturesque landscape
has been his home for the past seven decades.
ï¿½Growing up, we were told that the steam represented our departed
forefathers who came down to earth to sleep during the night, and went
back to heaven at daybreak,ï¿½ he explains to Think Africa Press. ï¿½Now,
we are told the smoke represents progress.ï¿½
In 2011, the Kenyan government announced that the vast valley and
surrounding escarpment areas would be the site of a multi-million
dollar power supply upgrade that could become the largest geothermal
project on the continent.
Nothing but a geothermal thing
The state-owned Geothermal Development Company (GDC) announced an
investment of $3.1 billion for the construction and development of the
first phase of what has been christened the Bogoria-Silali geothermal
complex. This first phase will take place in several areas of the
Kerio Valley (some 400 km from Kenya's capital Nairobi) and comprise
of eight geothermal power projects each with a capacity of 100 mega-
The GDC is currently in the process of seeking investors for the
complex. ï¿½Investors are expected to raise at least $400 million for
the construction of each unit and are responsible to finance,
construct, operate and maintain the plants, while GDC will be
responsible for the resource development and management development of
civil infrastructure, exploration, drilling among other technical
aspectsï¿½, said Patrick Nyoike, Kenya's Permanent Secretary for Energy
at a recent press conference.
Kenyan authorities are hopefully the Bogoria-Silali project will be a
step towards development. ï¿½Energy is a key pillar in our development
roadmap of becoming a developed country by the year 2030. If our
national grid can be boosted in any way, then this is a welcome, long
overdue moveï¿½, explained Kwemoi Mariko, an energy specialist based in
Around 60-80% of Kenya's electricity demand is supplied by the
countryï¿½s overstretched hydro-electrical power dams. But the rain-fed
energy system can be erratic during the dry season, forcing the
countryï¿½s power supplier KenGen Company to rely on diesel generators
to meet the shortfall.
The rest of Kenyaï¿½s electricity demand is supplied by Independent
Power Producers (IPPs) and imports from Uganda's electricity board.
ï¿½Essentially what this has meant is that we pay more for the powerï¿½,
Stephen Mutoro from the Consumers Federation of Kenya told Think
Africa Press. ï¿½Every little spike in world oil prices has an effect on
the power bills of every Kenyanï¿½.
And while small consumers feel the pinch of high power bills,
manufacturers feel the punch of it. Kenya's cost of electricity is
uncompetitive even within the East African Community bloc and
companies are opting to set up shop elsewhere.
ï¿½We have lost many investors to the neighbouring countriesï¿½, explained
Timothy Muriuki, Chairman of the Nairobi Central Business Community.
ï¿½Investors simply shut down operation in Nairobi and relocate to other
East African capitals. At the moment we are facing a lot of
competition from Kigali [in Rwanda]. It is becoming increasingly
difficult for large business owners to meet their revenue targets. We
hope the development of geothermal power will in the long run make
things better for us.ï¿½
Once completed, the first phase of the Bogoria-Silali project will
provide up to 800 mega-watts of power. Eventually, it is hoped the
complex will contribute some 5000 mega-watts to Kenya's national grid.
However, it may prove another challenge to get Kenyans to accept such
alternative sources of power.
Once it takes off, local resident Stephen Samoei Magut will be among
those the government says will benefit from huge subsidies to
geothermal power. But he remains adamant that no matter how cheap
geothermal power will be, he will stick to his current source.
ï¿½I will still use what I use now. I do not trust whatever they are
doing down at the valleyï¿½, he says. For decades, Samoei and his family
have been using the ever-dwindling sources of firewood and, on special
occasions, paraffin-fuelled tin lamps for daily energy needs.
A recent survey conducted by Kenya's Energy Regulatory Commission
suggested a majority of households are not willing to pay for improved
energy sources because of their limited incomes. Meanwhile, another
study by policy research firm Kenya Institute for Public Policy
Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) found that just about 29% of households
are connected to the electricity grid.
Poverty and low awareness of the benefits of renewable energy are the
main reasons the country's poorer citizens stick to ï¿½dirtyï¿½ energy
sources according to the report. Kerosene, charcoal and wood remain
the most popular sources of energy among poor households.
Given this, some argue that raising awareness will be critical if the
local population is to benefit from the mega project.
ï¿½We know it is the government, but they should tell us what is going
on... we saw the president and a huge government delegation
here...many people thought it was a political rallyï¿½, says Richard
Taalam, a community leader in Baringo, one of the chosen locations for
the project. Taalam says there are underlying, unfounded fears about
the project among the local population.
ï¿½There are rumours...untruths have been going around...some say the
geothermal wells will cause impotence among men...others think
eventually their land will be taken away by government...a lot of
civic education needs to go done,ï¿½ he says.
Though initial costs for the Bogoria-Silali block are huge, the
potential pay-offs appear to outweigh the costs. Geothermal is also a
more reliable energy source than hydropower since it does not
fluctuate with rainfall patterns.
ï¿½The Bogoria-Silali project has the power to transform the lives of
each Kenyan...and open up the previously inaccessible parts of the
countryï¿½, argues Timothy Muriuki of the Nairobi Business Community.
And more benefits are expected from the projectï¿½s trickle-down effect.
ï¿½Businesses around the area will benefit as the construction of the
wells goes on...all in all the communities around will be better off
eventuallyï¿½, says Taalam. ï¿½We just need to figure out how.ï¿½
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About the Author
Daniel Wesangula is a journalist with AFP based in Nairobi, Kenya. He
previoused worked for the Nation Media Group.
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