I do not need to feel guilty about contributing to global warming when my grandchildren turn on the TV to watch cartoons. This is because I live in rural, western Kenya, where 87% of the electricity is from renewal sources — the nirvana of Green Deal activists.
With a population of almost 50 million (one-seventh the size of the US population), electricity capacity is only 2370 MW and peak demand is only 1770 MW. The average Kenyan consumes only 167 kWh of electricity per year. Kenyans also contribute only 0.03 percent of worldwide carbon admission to the atmosphere each year, equal to about 1 percent of what each American contributes.
It is useful to study the sources of electricity in Kenya to see how this renewable rate is achieved.
Steam from geothermal power plants, seen from a plane. Image by African Explorer/Pexels
Workers at Olkaria Geothermal Power Plant, Kenya. Photo by Lydur Skulason, CC BY-SA 2.0 license
Probably surprising even to many CleanTechnica readers, the leading source of electric generation, at 47%, is from geothermal — the 1105 MW of capacity is the seventh highest geothermal amount per country in the world.
The Great Rift Valley which begins with the Dead Sea in Israel and ends in southern Africa with Lake Malawi passes right through the middle of Kenya. In eons hence, the eastern section will break off from the continent of Africa like Madagascar already has. In the meantime, this gigantic crack in the earth is hot. Therefore, it is easy to drill down into the earth and obtain hot water and steam to turn turbines to create electricity.
Kenya has the capacity for at least 10,000 MW of geothermal potential. While geothermal electricity is a great base-load continuous source of power, most of the costs are upfront during the drilling and construction of the plant, so financing is a significant problem.
Lake of the Aruba Dam, on the Voi River, in Kenya. Photo by Christopher T Cooper (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Not as surprising is that the second largest source of electricity is hydropower, at 705 MW, or 30%. Kenya is already a water-stressed country with only two year-around rivers that reach the ocean. 80% of the country is semi-arid or arid, with only 20% arable where most of the people live. The problem with hydropower is that is depends upon rainfall.
In 2017, there was a drought and the water levels in the lakes behind the dams that produce electricity fell too low to generate their normal amount of electricity. Then, as frequently happens in a climate such as Kenya’s, in 2018 there was major flooding and all the dams on the Tana River, including Masinga Dam, overflowed, leading to flooding in the lower reaches of the river. Hydropower cannot be considered a reliable source of power, so alternative sources need to be available.
Wind turbines at Lake Turkana Wind Farm in Kenya. Image by Andrew Owuor (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Lake Turkana Wind Farm, the largest in Africa at 310 MW, just came online last September. It had taken nine years for this to happen. In addition to the regulatory and financial issues, the $740 million cost included upgrading 125 miles of road to carry the wind turbines to the remote site and a transmission line to carry the electricity back to the center of the country. At one point in 2012, the World Bank withdrew their funding for the project because they thought (incorrectly, it turns out) that the wind farm would generate too much excess electricity that could not be used. Another delay occurred when the Spanish company that received the contract to build the transmission line went bankrupt. These are the usual type of issues that occur in a developing country.
The wind farm is sited in one of the best places for wind in the world. The wind blows off of Lake Turkana and is funneled between two hills, giving an extremely high wind potential. The project uses 365 Vestas 850kW wind turbines. In this day and age, I was disappointed that the wind farm used such small turbines, but the problem was transporting the turbines over 750 miles from the coast on two-lane roads.
There is a second smaller wind farm in the Ngong Hills near Nairobi. Originally, it had a capacity of 5.1 MW, but it is now being upgraded with more turbines to 25.5 MW.
The under-construction Garissa solar farm. Photo by Rural Electrification Authority.
Since the equator runs right through the middle of Kenya and that much of the country is arid and semi-arid, one would assume that solar generation of electricity would be a no-brainer. Although home/small-scale solar systems are very common in Kenya (which I will cover in another article), grid-scale projects are just beginning to be built. The largest one currently under construction is the 55 MW solar farm in Garissa, 225 miles northeast of Nairobi. One of the issues with solar farms is that they take up a considerable amount of land. But land in the arid and semi-arid areas ideal for solar farms are controlled by pastoralists who move from place to place, sometimes for hundreds of miles, in search of grass and water. The land is, therefore, group controlled and it is difficult to get the group to agree on the siting and compensation for the use of the land for a solar farm. Perhaps as more solar farms are built and people realize the benefits, people will become more cooperative and accommodating. Solar power potential in Kenya is enormous and their development is just beginning.
What about that 306 MW or 13% that is from fossil fuels? This is due to the fact that in the past, before there was much geothermal electric generation and the new Turkana Wind Farm, Kenya was mostly dependent on hydropower. When a drought came, there had to be backup generation available. So KenGen, the Kenya power generating company, contracted for dirty, diesel peaker plants to be on-call during these times. Most of these are on long-term contracts where they are paid a considerable amount when not even being used and produce electricity that costs two to four times the rate of other sources when in use, mostly in the evening hours.
The second source of fossil fuels is that grid electricity is frequently down. At my house, this occurs two to four times per week. Sometimes the outage is short, but our longest was three days when a truck hit the transformer post and a new transformer had to be brought from Nairobi. Most companies and some individuals, therefore, need to have a backup power source, which is usually a diesel generator. These are extremely expensive since they use a lot of diesel, which costs about $4.00 per gallon here in Kenya. I myself, in 2007, rather than use a diesel generator during outages, have installed a solar panel and battery.
The diesel peaker generators are slowly being decommissioned, but the last one is due to be decommissioned by 2035.
Yet there are storm clouds on the horizon. In 2014, four 1050 MW coal power plants were proposed for Lamu, on the coast north of Mombasa. Construction was supposed to start in 2015 and take less than two years. Coal would originally be imported from South Africa until a coal mine could be developed in nearby Kitui. Environmentalists were, of course, outraged, as were much of the local population who would bear the brunt of the pollution.
Lamu, an ancient port town, is a great tourist attraction (the streets are so narrow that they can’t accommodate cars) and the pollution might destroy the ancient stone structures. Recently, the project was cut back to 450 MW to 600 MW. Additionally, a government official of the Kenya Energy Regulatory Commission said, “International and local investors have expressed interest to set up over 4,000MW of solar and wind projects in Kenya, nearly double the country’s current total capacity.” So, hopefully this coal power plan is now dead.
More storm clouds on the horizon came from the intention to build two 1000 MW nuclear plants in Kenya by 2027. Kenya is already a water-stressed country and prone to earthquakes because of the Rift Valley. No appropriate site for these nuclear power plants has been indicated. Moreover, the budgeted cost is astronomical at $4.05 billion each. Recently, this has also been scaled back to 600 MW each at a cost of $4.84 billion each, with the completion date extended nine years to 2037. Why the cost went up as the capacity went down is unexplained, but probably due to the fact that nuclear power always costs way more than budgeted. Note also that at two times the capacity of the Turkana Wind Farm, the cost per kilowatt from the nuclear power plant would be six and a half times that of the wind farm. Nonetheless, the Chinese who would build these power plants are already giving scholarships to Kenyans to train them in nuclear power in China. It is doubtful that these nuclear power plants will ever be built.
What are the takeaways from this Kenyan example?
- How little electricity the average person uses in a middle-income country.
- The realization that climate change from electricity generation needs to be mostly solved in the United States and other high-consuming countries.
- How easily a country with little electricity consumption can generate most of its electricity from renewable energy sources.
- In Kenya, how difficult it is to implement what would be considered a modest renewable project in the US.
- How the coal and nuclear industries, which are in the decline in their home countries, are still pushing these expensive options onto the poorer countries of the world.
Who is David Zarembka?
I am a retired Quaker peace activist focusing on genocide, war, violent conflict, election violence, and refugees in Rwanda, Burundi, eastern Congo, Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan. Since 2007, I have lived in a small town in western Kenya, called Lumakanda, in the home area of my Kenyan wife, Gladys Kamonya.
I write a weekly blog called “Reports from Kenya” on current happenings in East Africa. To sign up for the weekly blog, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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