Thursday, August 16, 2012

Kenya's Lake Turkana: A Big Stride To Cover The Country's Energy Gap

Author: Christopher Guess

With the potential to produce more energy more efficiently than any of the nation’s other energy sources, Lake Turkana, in Kenya, will truly make an impact on the continent. It will help Kenya cover ground on its road to being a developed country. Christopher Guess provides insight into how a project will turn this lake into a renewable, clean energy source for Kenya.

Sub-Saharan Africa has an energy problem. Power comes on and off, and it takes only the best of luck to be able to figure out if your daughter will have to study by candle or light bulb any given night.  The most confounding part is that the electricity problem only seems to be getting better, while also getting worse. Rising urban populations are putting strain on the power lines and the generators that are already online. So the question comes up, do you make the service that already exists more reliable or do you build where there’s no power yet at all?  As it usually comes down to, this problem revolves around money. According to the Kenyan Ministry of Energy a new hook-up costs over $400 (USD), prohibitively expensive in a country where the GDP per person is $1,800 (USD).

Traditional methods of power generation
and distribution are no longer sufficient in Kenya.
There are more issues than answers in the Kenyan power situation. The country is maturing, growing and semi-industrializing. This means more power. Historically hydroelectric has provided the bulk of the nation’s electricity, but its dominance is slowly fading. Between 2003 and 2009, the percentage of electricity generated by fossil fuels went from 16% to 44%, essentially making up the shortfall from hydroelectric power. This is the exact scenario that economists and environmentalists have been warning about for a very long time.

Kenya needs power because it’s rapidly industrializing, and it is a great situation to be in.  The problem is that the rise in energy demand that comes with this development has yet to be matched by the advancements in power creation everyone had hoped would be here by the time this economic shift became a reality.

Kenya imports most of its fossil fuels and 100% of its oil, while still getting 60% of its day-to-day power from hydroelectric. These are good numbers to have; hydroelectric power is homegrown and clean. Wars don’t interrupt rivers and you can’t go into debt buying potential energy from gravity. The irony is that global warming can have adverse effects even on the systems that were created to combat it. Hydroelectric power stations clearly rely on a lot of water, and the sources of this fuel are getting less reliable because of recent volatile planetary climate patterns.

Kenyan Wind Turbines
There are a lot of solutions being considered to remedy these problems. In 2011, a Chinese company agreed to drill 80 geothermal wells in Kenya. One of the most interesting and potentially successful projects is quite a bit different, though. The Lake Turkana Wind Power Project is set to become the largest and most efficient wind power generation project in sub-Saharan Africa.  It is so large that, according to the project’s chairman Carlo Van Wogeningen, its finished capacity is set to churn out 310 megawatts of light bulb powering goodness a year, equal 20% of the current amount produced.

The project, originally set to break ground this last month, has been delayed by a year.  Like many people asking their landlord for just a little more time, the loan guarentees weren’t finished up in time before construction began and the plan had to be halted midway.  An interesting side note to this project is that Spain is one of the main benefactors supporting this project financially.  They will be paying in €110 million to put up the transmission lines running from the far north to the most populous region in the middle and southern regions of Kenya. When Mr. Van Wogeningen told me that Spain, even with its recent *ahem* financial situation was loaning this much capital, I was skeptical, but he assured me that three weeks ago the Spanish Government had forwarded the loan documentation to Kenyan officials for their signature.

This project is an interesting lesson in finding worth in a resource that was essentially unknown.  Apparently, back when a barrel of oil still sold for $20, another founding partner, William Dolleman, was fly-fishing near Lake Turkana, in the northern part of Kenya. The one thing that seemed to bug other people piqued his interest – the fact that the wind, no matter whether it was morning, noon or night, blew incessantly.   After floating his initial idea, Mr. Dolleman realized that the consensus – wind power would never be competitive against hydroelectric power or fossil fuels.

Wind Turbine farms may help to satisfy
Kenya's increasing energy needs in the future.
Cheap fossil energy isn’t going to last, and if you drive to work you already know that prices at the gas station are reflecting this change. Since the initial revelation to Mr. Dolleman, the project has done five years of studies on the lake’s wind patterns and realized that it is a perfect site, far better than any in Europe. The winds blow constantly and always in the same direction. This allows for significantly more efficient and cheaper wind stations to be put in place. According to Mr. Van Wogeningen, the average yield from a wind turbine in Europe is approximately 25% of a turbine’s full capacity. Must of the theoretical max output is loss when the wind simply doesn’t blow, or it turns in a direction that kills the efficiency of the blades. Mr. Wogneingen has that the expected – not theoretical – yield is more than double a European installation, coming in at 55% of the maximum.

Producing more power is necessary for Kenya, but distributing it fairly is another requirement. With shifting urbanization patterns and climate change, the entire population could relocate seemingly overnight. New projects such as the Lake Turkana wind farm are a step in the right direction, but making sure the correct amount of power generated gets to the people that need it the most and most often stands to pose an even harder challenge.

Christopher Guess is a journalist, photographer and tech entrepreneur based in Brooklyn, New York. Christopher writes about emerging innovations and individuals within Africa’s tech industry. Through his reporting, he seeks to highlight the successes and issues that emerging economies face when transitioning to knowledge based economies. He has reported extensively in the United States and internationally on humanitarian and economic issues. Eastern Africa became a specific point of interest for him while travelling and reporting in the area in 2008. In addition to his journalism, Christopher is the co-founder of two tech start-ups in New York City, giving him a distinct vantage point on developmental milestones and opportunities.

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