One of the hottest places in the world is set to become the site of Africa’s most ambitious venture in the battle against global warming.
Some 365 giant wind turbines are to be installed in desert around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya – used as a backdrop for the film The Constant Gardener – creating the biggest wind farm on the continent. When complete in 2012, the nearly US$1 billion project will have a capacity of 300 megawatts (MW), a quarter of Kenya’s current installed power and one of the highest proportions of wind energy to be fed in a national grid anywhere in the world.
Until now, only north African countries such as Morocco and Egypt have harnessed wind power for commercial purposes on any real scale on the continent. But projects are now beginning to bloom south of the Sahara as governments realise that harnessing the vast wind potential can efficiently meet a surging demand for electricity and ending power blackouts.
Already Ethiopia has commissioned a US$300 million, 120MW farm in Tigray region, representing 15% of the current electricity capacity, and intends to build several more. Tanzania has announced plans to generate at least 100MW of power from two projects in the central Singida region, more than 10% of the country’s current supply. In March, South Africa — with a heavy reliance on coal that makes its electricity the second most greenhouse-gas intensive in the world — became the first African country to announce a feed-in tariff for wind power, whereby customers generating electricity receive a cash payment for selling that power to the grid.
Kenya is trying to lead the way. Besides the Turkana project, which is being backed by the African Development Bank (AfDB), private investors have proposed establishing a second wind farm near Naivasha, the well-known tourist town. And in the Ngong hills near Nairobi, the Maasai herders and elite long-distance athletes used to braving the frigid winds along the escarpment already have towering company: six 50-metre turbines from the Danish company Vestas. Erected in June, they will add 5.1MW to the national grid from August. Another dozen turbines will be added at the site in the next few years.
Christopher Maende, an engineer from the state power company KenGen — which is running the Ngong farm and testing 14 other wind sites across the country — said local residents and herders were initially worried that noise from the turbines would scare the animals. “Now they are coming to admire the beauty of these machines,” he said.
Kenya’s electricity is already very green by global standards. Nearly three-quarters of KenGen’s installed capacity comes from hydropower, and a further 11% from geothermal plants, which tap into the hot rocks a mile beneath the Rift Valley to release steam to power turbines.
Currently fewer than one in five Kenyans has access to electricity but demand is rising quickly, particularly in rural areas and from businesses. At the same time, increasingly erratic rainfall patterns and the destruction of key water catchment areas have affected hydroelectricity output. Low water levels caused the country’s largest hydropower dam to be shut down in June.
As a short-term measure, KenGen is relying on imported fossil fuels, such as coal and diesel. But within five years the government wants to drastically reduce the reliance on hydro by adding 500MW of geothermal power and 800MW of wind energy to the grid.
Not only are they far greener options than coal or diesel, but the country’s favourable geology and meteorology make them cheaper alternatives over time. The possibility of selling carbon credits to companies in the industrialised world is an added financial advantage.
“Kenya’s natural fuel should come from the wind, hot underground rock and the sun, whose potential has barely even been considered,” said Nick Nuttall, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “After the initial capital costs, this energy is free.”
The Dutch consortium behind the Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) project has leased 66,000 hectares of land on the eastern edge of the world’s largest permanent desert lake. The volcanic soil is scoured by hot winds that blow consistently year round through the channel between the Kenyan and Ethiopian highlands.
According to LTWP, which has an agreement to sell its electricity to the Kenya Power & Lighting Company (KPLC), the average wind speed is 11 metres per second, akin to “proven reserves” in the oil sector, said Carlo Van Wageningen, chairman of the company.
“We believe that this site is one of the best in the world for wind,” he said. If the project succeeds, the company estimates that there is the potential for the farm to generate a further 2,700MW of power, some of which could be exported.
First, however, there are huge logistical obstacles to overcome. The remote site of Loiyangalani is nearly 480 kilometres north of Nairobi. Transporting the turbines will require several thousand truck journeys, as well as the improvement of bridges and roads along the way. Security is also an issue, as the region is known “bandit country”, and many locals are armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
LTWP also has to construct a 430-kilometre transmission line and several substations to connect the wind farm to the national grid. It has promised to provide electricity to the closest local towns, currently powered by generators.
The greening of Africa
At the end of 2008, Africa’s installed wind power capacity was only 593MW. But that is set to change fast. Egypt has declared plans to have 7,200MW of wind electricity by 2020, meeting 12% of the country’s energy needs. Morocco has a 15% target over the same period. South Africa and Kenya have not announced such long-term goals, but with power shortages and wind potential of up to 60,000MW and 30,000MW respectively, local projects are expected to boom.
With the carbon-credit market proving strong incentives for investment, other types of renewable energy also are set to take off. Kenya is planning to quickly expand its geothermal capacity, and neighbouring Rift Valley countries up to Djibouti are examining their own potential. As technology improves and costs fall, solar also will enter the mix. Germany already has publicised plans to develop a US$565 billion (400 billion euros) solar park in the Sahara.
“Ultimately for Africa, solar is the answer, although [costs mean] we may still be decades away,” said Herman Oelsner, president of the African Wind Energy Association.
Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009
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