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Hot Prospect - Geothermal Electricity in East African Rift Valley

Dec 11, 2008 - iNS/news/net

A century-old energy technology that taps steam from hot underground rocks is poised for a massive expansion up East Africa's Rift Valley in the 21st century. The news comes as countries across the world, from Guatemala to Papua New Guinea, are beginning to plug into geothermal energy as a new and promising alternative to coal and oil-fired power generation. Last Tuesday, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) announced the completion of project testing advanced seismic and drilling techniques in Kenya that has exceeded all expectations.

Wells of steam, able to generate 4-5 MW of electricity and one yielding a bumper amount of 8 MW, have been hit using the new technology. It could mean a saving of as much as $75 million for the developer of a 70 MW installation as well as reduced electricity costs for generators and consumers, experts estimate.

The results, announced at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Poznan, Poland have now paved the way for an international effort in 2009 to expand geothermal up and down the Rift which runs from Mozambique in the South to Djibouti in the North. The project, funded by the GEF and involving UNEP and the Kenyan power company KenGen, could also transform the prospects and costs for geothermal elsewhere in the world.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "Combating climate change while simultaneously getting energy to the two billion people without access to it are among the central challenges of this generation. Geothermal is 100 per cent indigenous, environmentally-friendly and a technology that has been under-utilized for too long".

"There are least 4,000 MW of electricity ready for harvesting along the Rift. It is time to take this technology off the back burner in order to power livelihoods, fuel development and reduce dependence on polluting and unpredictable fossil fuels. From the place where human-kind took its first faltering steps is emerging one of the answers to its continued survival on this planet," he added.

Monique Barbut, Chief Executive Officer and Chairperson of the GEF, said: "Overcoming the economic and technical hurdles to renewable energy generation is part of our shared responsibility. The work in the Rift Valley is demonstrating that geothermal is not only technologically viable but cost effective for countries in Africa where there is an overall potential of at least 7,000 MW".

"Indeed geothermal world-wide is undergoing a renaissance with the numbers of countries starting to use this power source estimated to rise from around 20 in 2000 to close to 50 by 2010. Africa's Rift Valley will I hope become a beacon for further geothermal acceleration in terms of the size and the number of power plants alongside its geographical spread across the developed and developing world".

The Project in Kenya

The GEF-funded project has, over the past three years used techniques known as Micro Seismic and Magneto Telluric surveys and studies for identifying promising new drilling sites at locations including Olkaria, Naivasha which is around one hour's drive from the capital Nairobi. Here a geothermal plant generating 45 MW has been operating for a quarter century. A second plant was brought on stream in 2000 with a capacity of 70 MW.

The main challenge to expansion in Kenya and elsewhere along the Rift has been the risk associated with drilling and the high costs if steam is missed. The nearly $1million Joint Geophysical Imaging project has aimed to overcome these risks. The old wells in Naivasha generate about 2 MW whereas the new techniques have not only boosted the chances of hitting steam but have pinpointed wells of much higher potential, typically on average 4 to 5 MW.

Rift Geothermal Expansion

Two years ago the GEF Council approved the Africa Rift Valley Geothermal Development Facility (ARGeo) backed with close to $18 million of funding and involving UNEP and the World Bank. The project, which will underwrite the risks of drilling in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, is now set to commence in early 2009 and will be able to call on the equipment and techniques piloted by KenGen and UNEP.

The ARGeo initiative has strong support from Iceland, one of the world's leading geothermal economies where well over 90 per cent of its electricity comes from 'hot rock' and hydro, as well as Germany which is also developing this energy technology. Separately Kenya and private investors are also seeking support funding from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol for a further 35 MW extension which is currently in the validation stage.

Kenya's current electricity capacity is around 1,000 MW. The country relies heavily on hydro-electric plants, generation systems that have in recent years suffered as a result of low rainfall and water supplies. The country has set itself a goal of generating 1,200 MW from geothermal by 2015.

A contract has recently been awarded to a Chinese company to drill as part of the development of a new Olkaria IV plant. As a result of the UNEP-GEF Joint Geophysical Imaging project the number of wells likely to be needed to achieve 70 MW could be 15 versus over 30 using the previous technology. This could save as much as $5 million for each well drilled.

UNEP-GEF is currently in discussions with the Ministry of Water and Environment of Yemen to explore for geothermal there in early 2009. More countries in the region with geothermal resources have also signalled their enthusiasm to participate in the geothermal expansion including the Comoro Islands, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. Source: UNEP


Updated: 2016/06/30

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