Japan Will Help Kenya Unlock Its Geothermal Potential

Geothermal is a big part of Kenya's bold plans to electrify half the population


Kenya has some lofty goals when it comes to geothermal power. The African nation already has about 200 megawatts of installed geothermal capacity, but the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has committed $18.4 million to help Kenya reach its goal of five gigawatts of geothermal capacity by 2020.

The target is lofty not only because it would be a 25-fold increase in less than seven years, but also because the country’s current peak demand is about 1.2 GW. But five gigawatts of geothermal is just the beginning for Kenya. The country’s government expects it will need about 20 GW of electricity by 2030. Currently, more than half of Kenya’s installed capacity comes from hydro.

JICA’s grant to the Geothermal Development Company will provide three years of assistance for capacity building, including training in exploration, engineering, negotiations, and use of geothermal resources.

It’s unclear how much the Japanese can actually accomplish for $18 million. Many have questioned whether the recent pledge of $7 billion by President Obama for African electricity needs is enough to make a dent in a continent where two-thirds of people don’t have access to the grid.

Kenya’s peak power demand has been growing by about 8 percent a year, according to Bloomberg, but it will have to expand at a far faster rate to meet the goals of the government. The country’s largest power producer, Kenya Power, is aiming to go from serving just over 2 million people today to about 20 million by 2020.

JICA’s assistance will help build geothermal plants in Menangai 1 and 2, Suswa, and other geothermal fields. According to AllAfrica, Kenya has almost all the rigs it needs to achieve its set target, but it needs properly trained crews to keep the rigs running continuously and to bring the cost down on running the wells. JICA is also supporting a hydropower project in Kenya and a transmission line. 

Although the bulk of international aid is going to large energy development projects, many rural regions in Africa could benefit from microgrids, such as the SharedSolar project out of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Many experts in renewable energy see the mobile phone revolution, which leapfrogged landlines in developing countries, as a model of how to bring power to billions that currently live without it. But costs remain an issue. Although prices are coming down for distributed solar, the price of batteries and metering for microgrids remains high.

Kenya does have a rural electrification plan [PDF] that calls for rooftop solar, but that option will only meet a small fraction of the country’s electricity goals. 


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