The 15-kilometre dusty road north of Garissa, a town in sunbaked northeastern Kenya, opens up to a vast land where workers are busy laying the ground for what is going to be the largest solar power project in East Africa. The 54.6 MW Garissa Solar Power Plant is a US$130 million project funded by the Chinese government and operated by a consortium of three Chinese companies.
This project is unique. It’s the first time the government has set aside massive investment in solar energy, despite the fact that Kenya has a constant supply of sun throughout the year.
Once completed, the plant will consist of 210,000 solar photovoltaic panels set on an 85-hectare piece of land. While Kenya is seen to be leading in harnessing green energy among its East African peers, the country still faces many challenges that have prevented it from reaching its full potential.
Climate change upsets the balance
Kenya taps most of its energy needs from dams built between 1970 and early the ’80s along Tana River, the country’s biggest river. Several other dams built on other rivers bring the total installed hydropower capacity to 743 MW which makes up for over half of the country’s power source.
“While East Africa is struggling to provide enough power to support one of the regions with the fastest growth in the world, it has not been able to live up to the desire to produce cleaner energy.”
This was going well at first, and the government was only worried about an increase in energy demand as the population increased. But the effects of a changing climate, which included erratic rainfall, had an impact on rivers; there wasn’t a constant supply of water anymore.
This has led the government to rethink its strategy and include wind and solar in the country’s energy mix. Located in Loiyangalani on the shores of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, the Lake Turkana Power project has 365 wind turbine generators, with a capacity of 850kW each, for a total project installed capacity of 310 MW. The Turkana Wind Power Project is expected to divest 125 million euros of fossil fuel imports, which Kenya had come to rely on, especially during drier periods of the year.
Wind power is relatively new in Kenya. The sight of a couple of windmills on Ngong Hills, on the outskirts of Nairobi, has been a spectacle among the locals. A similar project in Kinangop area, 70 kilometres north of Nairobi, was met with scepticism and eventual opposition and closure over unwarranted fears of health as well as land compensation issues.
Although radical and controversial, coal and nuclear energy were still also considered as an alternative to power the largest economy in East Africa, even though the effects of coal and nuclear have been disputed for decades all over the world–nuclear energy requires extreme caution and management expertise that many countries in Africa lack, while coal is a leading source of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases directly linked to global warming. Kenya believes it can tap into this to bridge the growing demand for energy, including the need to run electric trains–which have been jeopardised by the lack of efficient and reliable electric energy.
Unlocking the region’s geothermal energy potential
Kenya has been competing with Japan for the title with the highest installed capacity for geothermal power; its biggest success being the geothermal power mined in the country’s Rift Valley. The country’s experience and expertise also contribute to the region’s developing clean energy sources. In January 2019, Kenyan power generator KenGen announced it had won a tender for the development of geothermal energy in Ethiopia. The company has decades of experience in handling geothermal energy and has contributed to putting Kenya high up among its neighbours, specifically Ethiopia, the northern neighbour keen to further exploit thermal energy.
Ethiopia boasts of an abundant geothermal potential with a capacity of producing 10,000 MW of geothermal energy. However, this remains untapped and the country has been unable to catch up with Kenya’s installed geothermal power capacity of about 630 MW with a similar potential.
Hydropower still prominent in neighbouring countries
While Kenya has been divesting from hydropower and moving towards other sources that are not affected by climate change, and don’t have such a negative impact on the environment, other East African countries such as Uganda and Tanzania are increasing investment in dams.
Uganda, another East African country sitting evenly on the equator, has been exploring both solar and hydropower, but it is the latter that has brought great rewards. This is evident in a project in northern Uganda, developed under the Global Energy Transfer Feed-in Tariff (GET FiT), a dedicated support scheme for renewable energy projects managed by Germany’s KfW Development Bank in partnership with Uganda’s Electricity Regulatory Agency (ERA) and funded by the governments of Norway, Germany, United Kingdom and the European Union.
Often referred to as the “hydropower house of East Africa”–thanks to an installed capacity of 822 MW mostly from hydropower but with a capacity to produce almost four times what other East African countries would get–Uganda was for a long time self-sufficient in terms of power. In the ’70s, the country was even selling excess power to Kenya.
Today, the biggest hydropower project planned in the region will be based in Tanzania. The 2,100 MW hydroelectric project at Stiegler’s Gorge is expected to double Tanzania’s capacity as it joins other hydro-based power projects.
The development of small-scale solutions
While governments in the region have invested a massive amount of money to produce energy for industrial and home use, another category of power producers includes small scale social enterprises and mini-grid producers who are mainly dealing in low quantities for low consumers like homes and schools.
For decades, many homes could not afford the high cost of being connected to the national grid. Though these costs have come down relatively as government partners with European funders, many homes still don’t have power. This has given rise to these social entrepreneurs who see a gap in providing power to the low-income earners through microloans.
Such an enterprise is the M-Kopa, a Nairobi-based solar system merchandiser which uses the popular Pay-as-you-go model to sell solar equipment to homesteads who cannot afford to be on the national grid. American-supported d-Light, as well as Azuri, are among a growing list of companies who are combining solar and mobile technology to bring affordable, modern goods and services to millions of people who lack energy access in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Pay-as-you-go model in energy is a multi-million dollar industry in Africa, and Kenya has taken a lead due to the country’s rapid adoption of the mobile phone payment system, M-Pesa.
While East Africa is struggling to provide enough power to support one of the regions with the fastest growth in the world, it has not been able to live up to the desire to produce cleaner energy, and Kenya’s move to shift from hydropower to other forms is seen as a great insight as climate change affects the levels of water in the regional rivers.
Kimani Chege is a journalist based in Nairobi. He is specialised in science and technology, climate change, energy, health, business and finance as well as agriculture, with his work appearing in different publications both in Kenya and abroad.