Kenya: Will Geothermal Energy Bring Power to the People?
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.
"Growing 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," he explains to Think Africa Press. "Now, we are told the smoke represents progress."
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-watts.
The GDC is currently in the process of seeking investors for the complex.
"Investors 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 aspects", 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. "Energy 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 move", explained Kwemoi Mariko, an energy specialist based in Nairobi.
Around 60-80% of Kenya's electricity demand is supplied by the country's overstretched hydro-electrical power dams. But the rain-fed energy system can be erratic during the dry season, forcing the country's power supplier KenGen Company to rely on diesel generators to meet the shortfall.
The rest of Kenya's electricity demand is supplied by Independent Power Producers (IPPs) and imports from Uganda's electricity board. "Essentially what this has meant is that we pay more for the power", Stephen Mutoro from the Consumers Federation of Kenya told Think Africa Press. "Every little spike in world oil prices has an effect on the power bills of every Kenyan".
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.
"We have lost many investors to the neighbouring countries", explained Timothy Muriuki, Chairman of the Nairobi Central Business Community. "Investors 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."
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.
"I will still use what I use now. I do not trust whatever they are doing down at the valley", 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 'dirty' 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.
"We 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 rally", 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.
"There 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," 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.
"The Bogoria-Silali project has the power to transform the lives of each Kenyan ... and open up the previously inaccessible parts of the country", argues Timothy Muriuki of the Nairobi Business Community.
And more benefits are expected from the project's trickle-down effect.
"Businesses around the area will benefit as the construction of the wells goes on ... all in all the communities around will be better off eventually", says Taalam. "We just need to figure out how."
Daniel Wesangula is a journalist with AFP based in Nairobi, Kenya. He previously worked for the Nation Media Group.