Nakuru — About ten kilometres north of the Kenya's Rift Valley town of Nakuru lies a massive shield volcano with one of the biggest calderas in the world. Standing at about 7,474 feet above sea level with a sheer cliff, locals describe it as an easy suicide zone. Perhaps, this is how the crater earned its name 'Menengai' - Maasai dialect for 'Corpse'.
Now, with funding from the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the World Bank's Climate Investment Fund (CIF), the government of Kenya is taking advantage of this volcanic opening to generate electricity using hot steam from the earth's crust to run turbines.
"This is a move in a positive direction because with shifting climatic conditions we need more sources of energy that are not affected by the prevailing climatic conditions," said John Kioli, the chief executive officer of the Green Africa Foundation , a local nongovernmental organisation that champions a greener future.
In recent years, Kenya - which gets much of its energy from hydropower - has faced power rationing, largely because of reduced water levels at hydroelectric generating plants. The worst experience was in 2006, when the national grid ran short of 90 megawatts after rains were delayed. The shortages affected major businesses, as well as schools, hospitals, military camps and homes.
According to estimates by the Geothermal Development Company - formed by the government to fast-track geothermal power generation in Kenya, - the Menengai power plant could help shore up such shortages. It is expected to inject 400 megawatts of electricity into the national grid by 2017, which would boost current production by close to a third.
So far, the highest recorded peak power consumption in Kenya was1,347 megawatts, according to Migwi Theuri, a spokesperson for Kenya Power, which supplies electricity in the country. That is close to the company's peak generating capacity of 1,570 megawatts a day, and leaves too little excess capacity to support increases in industrial use.
"Having some little surplus does not mean that we are safe. The truth is that we are operating with suppressed demand because we do not have enough power to encourage more power users to invest in the country," Theuri said.
If 400 megawatts were injected into the national grid, Theuri said, it would immediately attract more investment by companies that need energy to run their factories. An investor who needs 50 megawatts a day cannot invest before he or she is assured of a constant surplus in the system of at least that much energy - or face machinery sitting idle when energy generation falls below what is needed, he said.
More power in the grid is also important because with an ongoing government-driven rural electrification programme, domestic demand for electricity is on the rise.
So far, the African Development Bank has given Kenya a loan of $124 million to develop the Menengai geothermal power plant. This has been supplemented by further funding of $25 million from the World Bank's Climate Investment Funds Programme for Scaling Up Renewable Energy in Low Income Countries (SREP).
According to Mafalda Duarte, coordinator of the Climate Investment Funds, the project will be carefully monitored with the help of the bank's integrity and anti-corruption division to ensure that the funds are used for the intended purpose.
Kenya has faced a variety of corruption scandals in recent decades, and ranked among the 40 countries seen as most corrupt in Transparency International's 2012 corruption perceptions index.
Duarte told Thomson Reuters Foundation that the governance, procurement and fiduciary standards of the Kenyan Geothermal Development Company have passed the acceptance standards of the organisations that are financing the project.
Backers said CIF funding had helped clear the way for additional private support of the project.
"The CIF funding has provided an enabling environment for private sector participation to develop Kenya's full geothermal potential," said Solomon Asfaw, the AfDB task manager for the Menengai Geothermal project.
He said he believed "it is very likely that the project will lead to lower electricity tariffs" in Kenya.
Asfaw said that power from the project could serve an estimated half million households in Kenya, including 70,000 in rural areas, and 300,000 small businesses. The addition of clean geothermal power to the country's grid system is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by close to two million tons per year, he said.
Though completion of the facility is still four years away, people living near the plant are already figuring out how to take advantage of the coming power and associated development.
"It is because of this project that we now have an expansive road network in this area, and I am sure in 10 years this market centre will already have grown," said Dominic Gachie, a village elder at Wanyororo township, close to the project site.
Underground water released during geothermal drilling is supplied to local residents for domestic uses, and is also being used to establish tree nurseries for locals to run.
According to AfDB, about 217 MW of geothermal energy already has been developed in the East African region, most of it in Kenya. But this is insignificant compared to the region's huge potential, which experts estimate at 10,000 MW in Kenya alone.
Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist with focus on agriculture and environment. He can be reached at email@example.com