In East Africa, the lack of electricity drives the use of deadly fuels. Lacking power for cooking, the region’s residents must use firewood or charcoal to heat food and water for safe consumption. The stakes are deceptively high: globally, air pollution from dirty-burning cookstoves kills millions of people annually—more than AIDS and malaria combined.
Today, East Africa has the lowest access to electrical power of all African subregions, but new renewable energy projects may change that in the years to come. The hope is that, ultimately, local geothermal energy will fuel a sustainable base load of electricity, finally bringing light to a part of the world long left in the dark.
Geothermal energy is a reliable and environmentally-friendly source of energy, based on the Earth’s infinite underground heat resources. Populations in tectonically active zones like the East African Rift System have a natural geothermal advantage, with geological conditions conducive to easy, efficient heat extraction near the surface—no ‘fracking’ necessary.
However, despite the tremendous benefits of geothermal energy, even ‘easy’ geothermal energy is initially very expensive, and it can take years to recoup startup costs. Scalable geothermal production also requires a great deal of technical expertise, a regulatory environment, and infrastructure to support electrification.
East Africa, which lacks the economic resources of the West, has so far seen minimal progress in renewable energy development. But a diverse coalition of public and private players has begun to sign contracts over the area’s untapped heat, combining outside investment capital with local resources in a series of projects that could breathe new life into struggling eastern economies.
Cheap, sustainable energy could help the poor escape the death trap of obsolete technologies and experience the healthy productivity long linked to steady electricity in wealthy countries.
And while established stakeholders have a tight grip on the world’s recoverable fossil fuel resources, the means of geothermal production have only begun to be explored. Moreover, Africa’s natural geothermal wealth—unlike its finite resources—could enrich local economies without placing nations in the crosshairs of exploitative foreign interests.
Electrifying East Africa
All eyes are on the East African Rift, a volcanic formation spanning about a dozen countries along a mountainous north-south axis. Here, the same subterranean forces that pushed up the land of eastern Africa, curling it into great rifts at the seam of two massive tectonic plates, have made it an ideal incubator for a nascent green economy.
Geothermals from the earthen gash could supply steady baseload power for regional electrical grids. Recoverable geothermodynamic resources in the Rift are thought to exceed 15,000 MW a year.
Geothermal development first exploded in Kenya, which boasts numerous sites along the Rift with immense profit potential. If currently-planned Kenyan geothermal projects thrive, the nation could produce as much as 1,600 MW–more than enough to supply its people’s annual demand for power.
Geothermal Scaling Up
But Kenya is only the beginning; the promise of local, sustainable energy is now driving the expansion of energy projects across national borders along Africa’s eastern coast. The Eastern Rift spans nearly a dozen countries, including Zambia – which is home to one of the world’s most polluted cities (Kabwe) – and most of these have joined the list of nations eligible for international development funds.
These efforts parallel the impressive global growth of geothermal power. According to the Geothermal Energy Association, there are over 700 projects currently underway across some 70 countries, and global capacity will hit a robust 12,000 megawatts MW by the end of this year.
As geothermal development expands in East Africa, nations like Kenya could become critical role models for other developing nations eyeing alternative energy development as a possible solution to chronic economic and environmental difficulties.
Geothermal power plant in Iceland / Photo by martin_vmorris