East Africa: Geothermal Tests Successful

Geothermal energy generation in Africa could take a leap forward in 2009 after exploratory studies in Kenya exceeded all expectations, it was announced yesterday (9 December).

A new enterprise - the African Rift Geothermal Development Facility (ARGeo) - will drive forward the plan to harvest the steam locked among the rocks under East Africa, according to leaders of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP). They made their announcement at the UN Climate Change Conference, in Poznan, Poland.

"Geothermal is 100 per cent indigenous, environmentally friendly and a technology that has been underutilised for too long," said Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP.

"Combating climate change while simultaneously getting energy to the two billion people without access to it are among the central challenges of this generation," he added.

Over the last three years, GEF has funded a US$1 million project in Kenya to identify promising new drilling sites. Although there are already two geothermal sites near Nairobi, Kenya, the main challenge to expansion in the country, and elsewhere along the Rift, has been the risk associated with drilling and the high costs if steam is not found.

The project harnessed new technologies to locate promising sites. Steiner said that the Rift Valley is now thought to have the potential to generate at least 4,000 megawatts of electricity.

"We have shown that geothermal electricity generation is not only technologically viable but also cost-effective," said Monique Barbut, chief executive officer of GEF.

The results mean that ARGeo can now expand geothermal projects up and down the Rift, which runs from Mozambique in the south to Djibouti in the north. The organisation is charged with raising private sector and public investment in selected geothermal sites in ARGeo countries as well as "creating an enabling environment for geothermal investments".

Participating countries will include Eritrea, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. KenGen (a Kenyan company), Germany and Iceland will also be involved.

ARGeo is receiving US$18 million from the GEF, and is also supported by UNEP and the World Bank. Barbut told SciDev.Net that it is now expected to find private investment too.

But Sandy Gauntlett, of the nongovernmental organisation the Global Forest Coalition, told SciDev.Net that geothermal energy should be seen only as one option in a range of many clean energies that now run the risk of being ignored.

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