A faint smell of sulphur, a shrill hiss of gas and a Rift Valley panorama punctuated by 30 pillars of steam mark the frontline of renewable energy growth in Kenya.
This is the boundary between Hell’s Gate national park and the geothermal plants that are increasingly powering one of east Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
Giraffes wander close to the giant pipes that snake across the landscape, a reminder this is also a border between an old model of development reliant on foreign safaris and a new drive to leapfrog the fossil-fuel phase of growth.
In recent years, Kenya has been a frontrunner in expanding access to electricity. Since 2010, the proportion of the 44 million population with power has reportedly surged from one in five to three in five. This is largely thanks largely to steam from the subterranean depths.
Hell’s Gate is named after the sulphurous hot springs that bubble up in this part of the Rift Valley, a 3,500-mile fault line that is slowly pulling the African continent apart and bringing underground heat closer to the surface.
Engineers tap the energy by drilling up to 5,000 metres into the earth, then injecting water that returns to the surface as steam to drive turbines. As long as the water is carefully recycled, the energy is virtually renewable. Emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases are released in the process, but the impact on the climate per kilowatt hour is between a fifth and a ninth that of burning fossil fuels.
After a slow start, Kenya has embraced this technology with gusto. Engineers boast that the recently expanded Olkaria IV plant, on the edge of the national park, is now the biggest single-site geothermal facility in the world, with a capacity of 280 megawatts. Kenya is already the ninth biggest geothermal-producing nation in the world and will rise further when the new 165 MW Olkaria V facility opens in July.
“By the end of next year, we will be one of the biggest geothermal producers in the world,” predicted Cyrus Karingithi, assistant manager at the Kenya Electricity Generating Company, KenGen. “We are transforming people’s lives like larvae into butterflies.”
Geothermal generating capacity has grown 117% since 1999 thanks to investment of $1bn from the Kenyan government, with support from international financing bodies such as the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the Global Environment Fund. The country’s 302 geothermal wells now provide 400 megawatts of power, enough to power two cities the size of Nairobi, according to the company.
Until now, hydropower has been the leading source of electricity production, but this is set to change. Over the next five years, the government plans to more than double capacity, mostly by opening enough geothermal wells to provide 49% of the power on the grid.
This is considered a cheaper and more stable supply than dams, which are badly affected by drought.
“Kenya is reducing its reliance on hydropower due to climate change. Currently when the dams are dry, they have to fill the energy supply gap with emergency imports of diesel fuel. That’s expensive. That’s why they want to have more geothermal,” said Geordie Colville, senior programme officer for the UN Global Environment Facility (GEF).
Other African nations are set to follow. Last year, Ethiopia contracted an Icelandic firm to survey possible sites in its stretch of the Rift Valley. Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda are also reportedly exploring similar developments.
But geothermal comes with a heavy cost to the local ecosystem. Environmentalists say the Olkaria complex has intruded on almost half of the Hell’s Gate national park, an important refuge for zebra, giraffes and eland. KenGen says this is an exaggeration and insists it has tried to minimise the impact, for example, by raising pipes on to stilts so animals can pass underneath. Even so, birds have died in collisions with power lines or been pushed from breeding sites.
The future could be dirtier still. The company plans to bring steel and iron mills to the region, which would create a heavily polluting giant industrial complex on the edge of a protected area, with all that entails in terms of traffic, population and degradation of air and water quality.
Overall, however, supporters argue geothermal is the lesser of evils. Over the next five years, coal and gas generation will also increase at a rapid rate as the government tries to supply a population that is expected to almost double by 2050.
Some of the first investments in geothermal in Africa were approved by Inger Andersen, the incoming head of UN Environment, during her time at the World Bank. She recalls taking groups to Iceland 20 years ago so they could learn from the pioneering geothermal plants there. These days the visitors come to Kenya, which is set to overtake Iceland this year in generating capacity.
The goal now, she says, is for regional economies to skip the dirty phase of fossil fuel-powered development and go straight to clean growth. “I totally believe in leapfrogging when I see the renewable resources that are available in Africa,” she tells the Guardian. “Kenya is sitting on huge geothermal resources and is blessed with incredible sunshine.”
There is progress too in solar and wind power. According to the UN, 10% of 600 million people who live off-grid in Africa are already accessing renewable energy. Last September, Kenya opened sub-Saharan Africa’s largest windfarm: a 310-megawatt plant near the shores of Lake Turkana. Officials say the government has ordered the installation of 50MW of solar by 2024.
But geothermal is leading the charge. After 31 years in the business, Karingithi says the investment conditions are finally ideal for the industry.
“It’s much easier to secure financing now because international investors are more interested in renewable energy and the government is promoting this sector,” said Karingithi, who insists the target of providing half the nation’s energy from geothermal is achievable. “As long as you set a goal, the universe will conspire for you.”
This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the world’s most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org