14 March 2011

Delivering East Africa’s Geothermal Promise

East African countries along the Great Rift Valley are turning to geothermal energy to meet burgeoning demand for power, while reducing their dependence on conventional sources of energy, such as oil, gas and coal. The move is especially significant in a region in which most people have no access to electricity

The Great Rift Valley in East Africa is one of the most geologically active areas in the world, with a geothermal energy potential estimated at about 15,000 megawatts (MW). Geothermal is exciting interest in East Africa, partly because new technology means that it is no longer limited to high-enthalpy resources, but also because the push is being supported by the United Nations and other international agencies.

Kenya and Rwanda

Kenya alone accounts for about one-third of the Valley’s geothermal potential and has the best developed geothermal resources in Africa. The country currently has an installed capacity of 1,300 MW and aims to increase this to 2,300 MW by 2020. Kenya’s State-owned Geothermal Development Company has already raised US$400 million of the US$1 billion it needs to execute its 10-year development plan.

Rwanda, which was subject to a bloody civil war in the mid-1990s, has an installed power capacity of just 69 MW supplying just 14% of the Rwandan population, but has ambitious plans to radically increase that – based on geothermal.

The country’s government wants to extend access to electricity to half the population over the next decade, and plans to build geothermal power plants with a capacity of 310 MW by 2017. Drilling will start in August this year, with the first pilot plant producing about 10 MW up and running by the end of 2012. A tentative budget of US$30.2 million to fund the drilling of three exploration wells has already been allocated.

Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen), which was contracted to conduct a surface exploration of geothermal energy in Rwanda during 2010, has suggested that Rwanda’s geothermal potential could be more than 700 Megawatts – ten times its current capacity.

Rwanda’s Ministry of Infrastructure has identified the southern slopes of Mount Karisimbi, an inactive volcano in the Virunga Mountains on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as the highest potential area for geothermal exploration.

However, the country needs to find an estimated US$935 million in order to fund the complete plan through to the end of 2017 – and investors at the moment are reluctant to commit.

Rwanda is also considering developing hydropower, methane gas, solar, biogas, and peat, with an ultimate goal of reaching 1,000 MW of electricity-production capacity by 2017, according to the government-supporting newspaper, The New Times. By the end of 2012 alone, it plans to almost double capacity to 130 MW via small hydropower and methane gas plants.

Ugandan studies

Uganda, which borders Rwanda to its north, is also banking on geothermal. Its potential is conservatively estimated at 450 MW. In contrast to Rwanda’s direct approach, Uganda’s government has adopted an incentive scheme in a bid to encourage companies to conduct exploration and build new plant. At the beginning of the year, it launched a US$7.70 per kilowatt hour (kWh) feed-in tariff, which is valid for a 20-year period.

In the future, Uganda will also be an oil producer following the discovery of reserves in the Albertine Rift, that could be worth between US$2 billion and US$5 billion in revenues per year. Robert Ddamulira, Oil and Gas Project Manager for the Worldwide Fund for Nature Uganda country office, suggests that the country could also look to large hydro (2,000 MW), mini-hydro (200 MW), Solar (200 MW), biomass (1,650 MW), as well as geothermal (450 MW) to satisfy its growing power needs. The projects could be funded by revenues from the oil industry, he suggests.

Other countries in East Africa planning to utilise geothermal energy include Ethiopia, Eritrea, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, all with the support of the United Nations, which regards geothermal as an environmentally friendly way of extending access to electricity.

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