Where zebras roam free, earth's heat is harnessed

Strapped for energy, Kenya hopes geothermal sources can provide 25 percent of the nation's power by 2017.

When the lights flicker or go out in Kenya, people hardly notice. Only 9 percent of the population is connected to the nation's energy grid, and even for those who are hooked up, power outages are the norm.

Villagers cut down more and more trees for firewood. Women cook over coal; children eat dinner in the dark; early morning risers grope blindly through their shacks. Teens scamper up electrical polls to steal lines from their more fortunate neighbors so they can hook up the TV.

One solution to the energy crunch, saysEnvironment Minister Francis Nyenze, could lie in harnessing more of the earth's own heat.

A popular renewable resource, geothermal energy is abundant, clean, and virtually inexhaustible. In Kenya, it is successfully being tapped in a beautiful place called Hell's Gate National Park. Zebra and giraffes romp as a small power plant called Olkaria chugs softly, emitting a mild odor of hydrogen sulphide. Painted green in an attempt to fit into the surroundings, with extra-high pipelines so that the wild animals don't get stuck, Olkaria is connected to the national grid at Naivasha via a 22-kilometer circuit. It provides Kenyans with 45 megawatts of energy - a small fraction of what the country needs, but at least a beginning.

This first geothermal plant in Kenya was commissioned in 1981 and financed jointly by the Kenyan government, the Commonwealth Development Corporation, and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Construction has begun on Olkaria II, which is expected to start operations in 2003 and to generate 64 MW. Both of the stations are owned by the Kenya Power Generating Company (KenGen). A private company, ORMAT, meanwhile, has set up a third plant - Olkaria III - after being awarded the project under a World Bank international tender. And Energy Minister Francis Masakhalia has recently put out an invitation to foreign investors in the power-generating sector.

Feasibility studies of Kenya's geothermal potential show that the Olkaria field - which covers an area of about 80 km - has a steam potential for 25,000 MW years. This means that, while currently geothermal energy contributes about 6 percent of the county's total demand, it is projected that by 2017 it could meet 25 percent of that demand.

The main source of geothermal energy is the constant flow of heat from the earth's interior to the surface. When the magma, or molten rock, created by the heat meets with underground waters - hot water or steam, or a mix of both is formed and can be extracted through wells. The water/steam is then piped out to drive electricity-generating turbines.

The annual heat emitted or otherwise lost from the earth is enormous, equivalent to 10 times the annual energy consumption of the United States and more than enough to power all the nations of the world - if it could be harnessed.

In the US, however, geothermal energy development is at a virtual standstill because of low prices for natural gas, highly efficient gas turbines, and utility deregulation. However, in other, less developed, parts of the world - where geothermal resources are more competitive with other energy alternatives, its use is on the rise.

Use of geothermal energy, tapped since the early part of the 20th century, has increased rapidly since 1970. More than 45 countries now draw some of their energy from geothermal sources. Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, for example, generate 10 to 20 percent of their electricity geothermally, while the Philippines generates 22 percent from this source.

Klaus Topfer, director of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) says that developing Kenya's geothermal fields could lessen damage to forests and thereby reduce air pollution and the greenhouse-gas effect. He adds that using cleaner sources also gives developing countries like Kenya "a chance to bypass the polluting energy path of developed countries."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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