Kenya is expanding plans to become one of the world’s top geothermal power producers with the start of explorations at a site called Menengai. The government is also aiming to make geothermal Kenya’s main power source.
Menengai, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, may hold the clue to boosting the country's electricity production.
Kenya is already Africa’s largest producer of geothermal power. It was the first country on the continent to drill for geothermal energy.
Last year, the International Geothermal Association ranked Kenya as the world’s 10th largest producer of geothermal power, calling the country’s potential “massive.” But that was before the first well opened at Menengai earlier this year.
Ruth Musembi, public relations manager at Kenya's Geothermal Development Company, says explorations so far are exciting.
“When you get the first well being eight megawatts, then that tells you something," she said. "The second well which has discharged - the temperatures are very high, they are almost over 300 degrees. That tells you that this is not an ordinary geothermal field. It’s going to be a major, major breakthrough for this country in terms of electricity.”
Experts estimate that the site alone contains some 1,600 megawatts, or about 300 megawatts more than Kenya’s entire energy use.
The first phase of the Menengai Geothermal Project is expected to contribute 400 megawatts to Kenya’s power grid by 2016, an increase of 30 percent.
Geothermal energy comes from the earth’s core, made up of molten rock, or magma. Temperatures there are extremely high. In some areas, the magma is closer to the earth’s surface, heating up layers of rock that contain pores of water. Some of this water rises to the surface in the form of hot springs and geysers.
Steam is trapped within the rock layers and can be accessed through drilling. The steam is then harnessed to produce electricity.
Africa’s Rift Valley is an ideal location for geothermal energy.
“Basically, you can drill for geothermal anywhere, but it will be very expensive because we’ll have to drill very far down," explained Ruth Musembi. "But in the Rift Valley, the heat has come closer to the surface, so when you drill about two-and-a-half [or] three kilometers, you are able to get the heat source. In other places, probably you will go many kilometers.”
Kenya’s Rift Valley contains 14 geothermal sites. Officials estimate that there are between 7,000 to 10,000 megawatts of potential geothermal energy in Kenya.
Hydro-electricity has long been Kenya’s primary power source. But massive deforestation and other factors have led to decreasing rainfalls and the drying up of rivers and lakes, making hydroelectric power less of an option.
Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka told a recent conference in Nairobi that increasing the use of geothermal power is key to Kenya’s development.
“Power produced from geothermal resources is a sure means of improving our peoples’ quality of life," he said. "Besides, with the Kenya Vision 2030 angling for an industrialized economy, novel sources of electric energy must be found in order to power factories and processing lines.”
Currently, more than 80 percent of Kenya’s population does not have access to electricity.