Nakuru town was once dubbed ‘the cleanest town in East Africa’ but it lost that title many years ago. As you approach the town from Nairobi, you join a long procession of aged cargo trucks belching jet black exhaust fumes, reducing the air quality and staining roadside buildings. The town is, however, taking steps to reclaim its title with progressive clean energy initiatives.
Nakuru is the fourth largest urban area in Kenya with a population of over 300,000 people. It is famously close to Lake Nakuru, home to thousands of flamingos. 10km North of Nakuru you will find a dormant shield volcano, the Menegai Crater, boasting one of the largest calderas in the world. The last eruption is thought to have occurred around 8000 years ago, forming the 12km by 8km crater that is present today.
As you make your way up the slope through the fields of maize, wheat and barley that belong to smallholder farmers eking out a living on the flanks of the crater, you feel the temperature begin to drop dramatically. Upon reaching the rim and turning your back to the caldera, at a height of 2,278m above sea level, a spectacular uninterrupted view of Nakuru greets you. On a clear day, you can see across the entirety of the town and across to the lake.
Turning back to face the vast crater is an equally remarkable view. It isn’t just the natural beauty that draws your attention. Dotted across the crater floor are several red and white metallic rigs billowing clouds of white vapour. These towers belong to the Geothermal Development Company GDC and, as the name suggests, they are harnessing the geothermal power of the volcano.
Their aim is to provide 5000MW of clean, renewable energy from geothermal resources by 2030. The Kenya Vision 2030 development policy “aims to transform Kenya into a new industrialising, middle-income country that provides a high quality of life to all its citizens in a clean and secure environment by 2030.” Kenya will need an additional 10,000MW by 2030 to meet these goals. Producing 50% of this target via geothermal resources will be an admirable achievement.
There are 14 sites across the Rift Valley in Kenya targeted by the GDC. The Menegai Site is currently in its first phase, which will see it producing 400MW by the end of 2017. It is currently producing 105MW, saving the nation more than Ksh 13 billion (£81.5 million) every year.
In addition to this, the GDC is running several environmental responsibility projects alongside the main energy generation objective. One of these is a tree nursery where indigenous seedlings are provided to the local community in the pursuit of social afforestation, following the years of logging that has taken place within the caldera. Automatic weather stations have also been set up to monitor daily weather conditions in the area.
Around 24 countries globally use geothermal energy but Kenya is the first in Africa. Other African nations, especially neighbours along the Rift valley, are keeping a close eye on the progress and successes of these projects. Many already have plans in motion to start their own geothermal power stations.
Representatives from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda have expressed interested in small-scale geothermal plants for rural electrification, connecting many rural villages with mini-grid systems.
Small geothermal power plants producing less than 5MW would be well suited to supply electricity to remote areas in developing countries. The problem with these projects are the unique financial and operational costs associated with the small size of the plants. As such, they require strong regional promotion of the technology and significant government intervention to lift them off the ground.
The effort is worth it, as small geothermal projects have great potential to alleviate poverty in rural villages by providing electricity. However, geothermal resources do not just offer electricity generation, they can also be used directly for heating.100km South-East of the Menegai Crater, on the banks of Lake Naivasha, is a horticultural farm that grows fifty hectares of roses. In early 2000, a project funded by the Oserian Development Company started to use geothermal energy to directly heat their greenhouses and control night-time humidity levels. Controlling temperature and humidity help decrease the incidences of fungal diseases in crops. The farm uses a geothermal well, leased from KenGen who are operating in the nearby Olkaria geothermal field. To this day the farm and is one of the only examples in Kenya of direct geothermal resources used on a commercial property.
If governments or private organisations continue to harness small-scale geothermal resources, like the Oserian Development Company, it could pave the way for further promotion and geothermal initiatives that, in the future, may even include small-scale electricity generation.
Max Marcheselli has experience working in the field in both Tanzania and Uganda to build and collect content for several Elimsis courses as well as providing on the ground technical support and assistance. Max is a graduate of Queen Mary, University of London and is currently based in East London.