Renewable Energy In Kenya: Meeting The Needs Of An Expanding Population

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Electricity demand in East Africa is projected to triple by 2030. Investment in renewable technologies will be essential to the strategic diversification of the energy sources needed to meet this demand, and renewable energy in Kenya is poised to expand exponentially over the next decade. As Kenya moves to diversify from its current three main sources of energy — 69% biomass, 22% petroleum, and 9% electricity — the country must overcome the hurdles posed by outdated and overlapping legislation and regulations, various mandates of national and county governments, and contradictory policy frameworks.

renewable energy in Kenya

Geothermal Renewable Energy in Kenya

Kenya, 8th in the world in geothermal energy production, announced in February it wants to add 1,745 MW of geothermal generation by 2025. The Kenyan government has a new energy policy that directs its state-owned energy system, KenGen, as well as the country’s independent power producers, to eliminate fossil fuel-powered generation. Called “Kenya Vision 2030,” the country’s energy plan outlines how the majority of the country’s electricity will come from renewable sources at utility, commercial, and industrial scale. Off-grid solutions are also included.

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“Going forward, the government policy, which all generators including KenGen and including independent power producers, is to eliminate generation from fossil fuels,” Moses Wekesa, the country’s business development director, said during a recent tour of KenGen’s geothermal plants. With anticipated electricity demand in Kenya varying anywhere from 7%-9% annually in the next decade, Wekesa noted, “First, as a rule of thumb, your supply must always be ahead of demand. The reason being that it takes a while to put up a power plant.”

“The conditions in Kenya are ripe for geothermal development, with a supportive government, demonstrated history of successful projects, and a rapidly-growing economy hungry for cheap and reliable electricity,” indicates Andrew Palmateer, program director for the United States Energy Association. “As a clean, renewable, baseload electricity source, geothermal is well-positioned to increase its share of the electricity mix in Kenya.”

Kenya’s population is expected to grow from 49 million to about 90 million people by 2050. Since only about 40% of the population now has reliable electricity service, about 1,500 miles of new transmission lines are under construction, with plans for an additional 3,600 miles.

“The theoretical potential for geothermal energy capacity in Kenya is more than 10,000 MW, and in the Rift Valley alone, where most of the capacity is currently installed, the potential could be 2,000 MW,” says Sanjay Chandra, director of clean energy development at business consultancy ICF. “Do keep in mind that a geothermal project has a long development cycle, given the time it takes for exploration, data collection, and engineering a site for generation. Getting requisite financing along the way adds to the timeline. It could take 10–15 years for a site to become a generation plant.”

Other African nations, including Djibouti, Comoros, Eritrea, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda, are exploring geothermal generation.

Electrification of Kenya’s Trains Boosted by China

The Kenya Electricity Transmission Company Limited (KETRACO) signed a $240 million contract with China Electric Power Equipment and Technology Company Limited (CET) in January, 2018 to provide electrification of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) system. Currently powered by diesel, the SGR expansion will include construction of 14 substations between Mombasa and Nairobi. The main purpose of this venture is to ensure that, when the SGR switches to clean energy power sources, the supply will be reliable and sufficient for train stations, planned industries, factories, and businesses near the railway. This will create more major power customers and consumers and bring other opportunities to the local commuities.

The design of the SGR railway, initially run by diesel-powered locomotives, allows for the addition of a single electric line that will be connected to KETRACO’s 482km 400kV Mombasa-Nairobi Transmission Line (MNTL), the longest and highest voltage transmission infrastructure in East Africa,. It has a transfer capacity of 1,500MW, or 200MW shy of the current national demand of 1,700MW. The line was constructed to address the challenges of low voltages, high transmission losses, and an unreliable supply. Moreover, the project contributes to strengthening network security and the national grid system.

renewable energy in Kenya

Race to Wind Power Part of Renewable Energy in Kenya

NARI Group Corporation and Power China Guizhou Engineering Company were awarded a Sh9.6 billion contract to complete the transmission line linking Kenya’s Lake Turkana Wind Power to the national grid. The wind farm is the largest in Africa with a capacity of 310 megawatts. Interestingly, the consortium of Chinese firms is racing against time to complete the construction by August 31 to avoid a fine of Sh1.3 billion per month. KETRACO managing director Fernandes Barasa said the government would work with the contractors to ensure timely completion of the project. He added that the 428-kilometer Lake Turkana Wind Power line is currently 70% completed.

The tensions around completion result from Isolux’ removal last year. The Spanish firm’s contract was terminated after it was placed in receivership. Following delays, Lake Turkana Wind Power has already fined the government Sh5.1 billion.

The Lake Turkana consortium consists of KP&P Africa, Aldwych International, Investment Fund for Developing Countries, Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation, Norwegian Investment Fund for Developing Countries, Sandpiper, and Vestas.

Small Solar Projects to Accomplish Big Returns in Kenya

The Kenyan government, in conjunction with the Rural Electrification Authority, plans to increase access to electricity in distant areas such as the North Eastern and Rift Valley by constructing 25 mini solar plants. The targeted small towns for the mini solar plants are Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Marsabit, and Turkana — all located in off-grid areas. Energy Cabinet Secretary Charles Keter said that these solar plants will help reduce the cost by seven times the retail cost of electricity.

Electricity generation from hydro sources is adversely affected in these Kenyan regions due to dry weather patterns, which have forced the adoption of expensive diesel generators.

The new mini solar plants join four existing solar mini-grids, all of which are expected to reduce the retail cost of electricity from the current 35 cents per kilowatt hour to five cents per kilowatt-hour.

renewable energy in Kenya

Final Thoughts

A report from groups including the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa and the United Nations Environment Program says East Africa has the potential for tremendous shifts toward renewable energy, and Kenya is far and away the leading source. Their report, “Toward Smart and Integrated Infrastructure for Africa,” encourages Africa “not to repeat the technological mistakes made by other regions in the world when developing new infrastructure” and recommends the continent “leapfrog” to new technologies, including green and digital technologies.

In the meantime, if the Kenya Vision 2030 program can achieve its objective to transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country, it has the potential to provide a much higher quality of life to all its citizens in a clean and secure environment. Renewable energy in Kenya is making that dream a real possibility.

renewable energy in Kenya

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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