Kenya taps the earth’s heat

3 Min Read

Kenya boasts the largest solar and wind projects in Africa. Now it’s developing the world’s largest geothermal plant. The country’s geothermal industry has the potential to power much of the country.

For many visitors, Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya triggers an uncanny sense of déjà vu. Much of the 1994 film The Lion King was inspired by the park, and thousands of tourists still come every year to see the rugged cliffs that gave rise to the childhood classic. But three decades on, the park is becoming famous for something far below the surface.

Hell’s Gate, which lies about 50 miles northwest of the capital, Nairobi, is the center of a renewable energy revolution in the east African nation. All around, steam billows out of vast geothermal plants, and water pipes snake across the bush, past herds of giraffes, buffalo, and gazelles.

One of two people in sub-Saharan Africa has no access to electricity, and some large economies—such as Nigeria and South Africa—rely heavily on fossil fuels to supply their booming populations. But Kenyan engineers say that on a good day, about 95 percent of the national grid’s power comes from renewable sources, with anywhere from a third to half of that coming from geothermal wells.

“It is something the world can learn from us. It is possible to move towards green energy, to reduce the carbon footprint and make the world a better place to live and for future generations,” says Peketsa Mangi, general manager of geothermal development at the government-run Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen).

Kenya is the world’s seventh top producer of geothermal energy. Part of its success comes down to its geography. The country of 53 million people lies in the Great Rift Valley, a series of geographic trenches and lowland areas spanning 4,300 miles from Lebanon to Mozambique.

Africa is slowly breaking apart along this fault line as the tectonic plates move away from each other, and scientists think that there will be a new ocean running through this area in some 5 to 10 million years.

But for now, the Rift Valley area in Kenya is an incredibly cost-effective place to harness the Earth’s heat. On average, engineers around the world need to drill down about 3,000 to 4,000 meters to make a geothermal well, but some wells in Kenya are only 900 meters deep, says Mangi.

Credit: Mark-Anthony Johnson