Geothermal power is coming to Africa’s aid to meet its greatest challenge which is the provision of electricity to power its industries and stimulate socio-economic growth amongst its population. When you consider that 12percent of Africa’s 2 billion people have access to electricity then the magnitude of the problem only begins to be come apparent. In addition where power is available its cost is high when it is available at all leading to an uncompetitive environment for its manufactured goods.
Africa’s Great Rift Valley better known for its picturesque mountains, escarpments and lakes has become the new source of hope to enable Africa to meet its energy needs well into the 21st century. In recent years the geothermal energy potential on the valley floor has attracted the attention of major investors keen to tap into an energy source that is plentiful, renewable and largely environmentally friendly.
The Great Rift Valley, a 6,000km terrain stretching from northern Syria to central Mozambique in South Eastern Africa. In East Africa alone the region’s Rift Valley has vast geothermal reserves. If tapped, this can considerably reverse Africa’s chronic energy shortages.
Recent geological surveys have provided evidence that Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania have huge potential for geothermal energy, which could reduce heavy reliance on hydropower and fossil fuel in these countries and the region. According to an assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environment Facility, there is 4,000MW of electricity ready for harvesting along the Rift Valley.
Like other renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydro, geothermal offers significant potential in terms of climate change mitigation. “Geothermal is 100percent indigenous, environmentally friendly and a technology that has been under-utilized for too long. It is time to take this technology off the back burner in order to power livelihoods, fuel development and reduce dependence on polluting and unpredictable fossil fuels,” says UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner. The big money seems to agree and several institutions such as the World Bank, African Development Bank, USAID, Icelandic International Development Agency and the Nordic Development Fund are making financing available to governments in the Rift Valley countries for geothermal development according to a report by consultancy firm Norton Rose Fulbright.
Despite the huge potential already acknowledged progress in development of geothermal energy was slow with only Kenya and Ethiopia have small installed capacities. This has been blamed on lack of funding, the high risk nature in the drilling oerations as well as poor legal framework and policy in government.
But today greater focus has been given by governments due to rising fossil fuel costs, droughts and siltation of hydro electric dams and the ever looming power deficit that was growing faster than the rate of the installed power capacity. Kenya established the Geothermal Development Company, Tanzania has recently established the Tanzania Geothermal Development Company a subsidiary of TANESCO the local power utility firm while Uganda is in the process of settin up a geothermal resources department.
Despite all the activity, only Kenya and Ethiopia have tapped this renewable resource to date in the Rift Valley. In the case of Kenya, the first geothermal plant in Africa was commissioned in 1980’s. The 45 MW plant was commissioned in three phases and has three units each generating 15MW of electricity. The first unit was commissioned in June 1981, the second and third units in November 1982 and March 1985, respectively. Kenya has set a goal of generating 1,200 MW by 2015. Experts estimate that Kenya alone has a potential of 15,000MW. Kenya’s vast geothermal energy located at the Great Rift has more than enough power to light up the entire nation. Recently the President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned the Olkaria 4 gothermal power plant which has added 140MW of electricity and later in the year a further 140MW is expected to come online. The increased geothermal power will have a significant impact on the country which has for long depended on expensive fosil fuel generators to make up for the country’s electricity deficit. Indications are that power costs to consumers could go down as much as 50percent.
The Project is part of Kenya’s effort to diversify its power sources as it moves to cut reliance on hydropower which currently contributes 46% of the country’s electricity needs, but which is vulnerable to weather fluctuations. Currently, the country has a total electricity generation capacity of 1,500MW of which geothermal contributes a meager 200MW. The country plans to raise the contribution of geothermal from the current 13% to about 50% by 2018.
Ethiopia also has a considerable renewable energy endowment and it is moving to tap its geothermal potential. It has so far signed a preliminary agreement with a US-Icelandic firm, Reykjavik Geothermal, for a US$4bn private sector investment intended to tap its vast geothermal power resources. The aim is to construct a 1, 000 MW geothermal power plant, Africa’s largest, in the volcanically active Rift Valley. Gunnar Orn Gunnarsson, COO, Reykjavik Geothermal said the company expects to bring aboard at least four other partners under an agreement that would help mobilize between US$40 m to US$80m to help cover drilling of at least five wells. “We think we have a project that can have a return on equity that is acceptable by the investors,” Gunnarsson said.
Power will be extracted from under the volcanic Corbetti Caldera crater. The first 500 MW of power from Corbetti Caldera is projected to come onstream in 2018 and the second 500 MW by 2021. Experts put Ethiopia’s geothermal potential at 5, 000 MW.
Based on preliminary exploration, current estimates indicate a geothermal potential of 4000 MW in Tanzania. The government of Tanzania is interested in the use of small-scale geothermal plants for rural electricity mini-grid systems, although this has not yet started. The geothermal field in the vicinity of Lake Natron in Tanzania would allow base-load power to be fed into the main grid system of the Tanzania Electricity Supply Company. Tanzania is also working on a geothermal component that would catalyze the development of more than 100 MW of geothermal power, while also establishing an enabling environment for large-scale geothermal development.
Building on the Kenyan experience with the Menengai geothermal project, the African Development Bank is working on an ambitious geothermal development program for Africa. The AfDB is focused on developing the Tanzania geothermal potential by replicating Kenya’s model.
Djibouti also plans to supply nearly all of its electricity needs through geothermal energy. It has so far identified four full-sized geothermal production wells. In January 2014, Djibouti’s cabinet approved funding for several projects to be carried out by development partners for the first phase of the geothermal energy development at Lake Assal. The financing arrangements take the form of a loan worth more than US$6.1m and a grant worth more than US$14.4m for six proposed projects. The overall budget for the project is US$30m and it will be supplemented with funding from the French Development Agency and the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Fund for Development.
The Djibouti Geothermal Power Project is being developed by another Icelandic firm, Reykjavik Energy Invest and the firm has already advertised the invitation for bids from qualified drilling companies to execute the project.
In Malawi, 21 major hot springs are reported in the Chitipa-Karonga area down to Chipudze in the southern region. Almost all the known geothermal energy sources of the country are of the convective type. In Mozambique, the most promising areas for geothermal energy development are in the northern and central provinces. The local availability of geothermal fluids confirms the possibility of small-scale power generation, and warrants more detailed studies and eventual exploratory drilling. At least 38 thermal springs have been identified in Mozambique mostly within the Rift Valley just north of Metangula where vigorously boiling water is reported on the edge of Lake Niassa. There are several springs lower in temperature (below 60 degrees Celsius) found along and to the west of major faults in the Espungabera-Manica areas, near the border with Zimbabwe.
South Africa is also relatively well-endowed with eighty-seven thermal springs documented to day of temperatures ranging from 25 degrees Celsius to 67.5 degrees Celsius. Of the 87 thermal springs, 29 have been developed for direct use, mainly as family leisure and recreational resorts, using the water for health or spa purposes. A recently launched research project in South Africa is aimed at investigating the feasibility of generating power using a thermal spring binary system as well as from hot granites.
In Madagascar, eight geothermal sites have been identified. France is financing a prototype (micro-geothermal) pre-feasibility study for a 50-100 KW facility using a low-temperature geothermal resource to supply electrical energy to isolated villages.
The Botswana government has called for companies to tender for the provision of consultancy services to conduct a pre-feasibility study for the construction of a solar geothermal power plant in the country. Zambia has several sites planned for construction but the projects have stalled due to lack of funds.
According to Monique Barbut, Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer of the Global Environment Facility, the work in the Rift Valley is demonstrating that geothermal is not only technologically viable but cost effective for countries in Africa where there is an overall potential of at least 7000 MW.
Bottlenecks to geothermal development and mitigation plans
The high up-front costs associated with geothermal exploration coupled with perceived political, economic and regulatory risks and lack of geothermal development skills have been the primary barriers to geothermal energy development in East Africa.
However, this is changing. Various international development agencies and the continent’s geothermal rich countries have embarked on developing options and actions to enhance opportunities and reduce threats to geothermal development.
The recent launch of the US$67million East African Geothermal Risk Mitigation Facility, a partnership between the African Union Commission and the German development agency KfW to provide matching grants for exploration, will help to reduce many of the upfront exploration risks.
At the same time, governments and international donors alike have demonstrated a renewed interest in promoting the development of Africa’s clean and renewable geothermal energy resources. In 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) launched a new international energy partnership to help bring U.S. geothermal industry expertise and companies into the rapidly expanding East African geothermal market.
Speaking to Construction Review, Ms. Britt Shaw, Program Coordinator of US-East Africa Geothermal Partnership (EAGP) and United States Energy Association (USEA) said that the EAGP, a partnership between USAID and GEA, being implemented by USEA, seeks to promote the development of geothermal energy resources in East Africa and facilitate the involvement of U.S geothermal companies and experts in the region. She noted that EAGP is part of President Obama’s US$7bn Power Africa Initiative with the goal of doubling access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. EAGP’s geographic mandate includes all East African countries with substantial geothermal resources, but will focus initially on three of the Power Africa focus countries, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania, and also Djibouti, Rwanda and Uganda.
The African Development Bank has also said that it will increase lending to geothermal power generation in the continent.
The world Bank has indicated that the actual drilling of the four geothermal wells at Lake Assal geothermal field in Djibouti is going to be co-financed by Global Environment Facility, the OPEC Fund for International Development and the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA).
The World Bank has also approved a US$178.5m credit from the International Development Association (IDA) and another US$24.5m grant from Scaling-up Renewable Energy Program (SREP) Trust Fund to help the Ethiopian Government realize its geothermal development.
With so much geothermal energy available and Africa’s populations in dire need, the African Rift Valley Geothermal Development Facility backed by the UNEP and the World Bank, will support drilling in the Rift Valley countries.
Geothermal projects are challenging but for the African countries situated astride the Rift Valley it offers a viable alterantive to expensive thermal power and an alternative to hydropower that has been plagued by drought and siltation in the past.