WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When Jaime Merriman visited Kenya, she saw giraffes, but she was not on a wildlife tour. Merriman's close encounter happened at Kenya's geothermal facilities, where the striking animals were completely undisturbed as they grazed.
In fact, Merriman seems as in awe of the geothermal facilities as she is of the creatures. After all, she asked to be assigned to geothermal energy in her role promoting U.S. exports to emerging economies for the U.S. Trade Development Agency (USTDA).
The export market for geothermal goods and services has noticeably expanded in recent years, and a January 2012 survey of Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) members showed that over 65 percent were exporting technology or otherwise involved in geothermal development abroad.
Africa represents an important new opportunity for U.S. geothermal firms. While Africa has had its economic problems, it has seen strong economic growth over the past decade. Real GDP has been growing at roughly 5 percent annually, making the continent among the world’s fastest growing regions. This has been due at least in part to government efforts to diversify economies, spur employment, and encourage industrialization — all presenting a rising need for reliable electric power.
Geothermal company Power Engineers, which has been involved in geothermal work in Africa since 2000, has seen a significant level of outside development funding for the region from U.S. and other international development agencies, NGOs, and national development banks.
“The apparent competitive appetite of the national development banks to fund geothermal projects in the Rift area is a subject of keen interest,” company representatives Mike Long and Marshall Ralph wrote in an e-mail to GEA.
Kenya, the leader in geothermal development in the region, targets a GDP growth rate of 10 percent starting 2012, with electricity demand to grow in tandem through the Vision 2030 initiative. Geothermal energy is also produced in Ethiopia, and other countries are increasingly interested. Together, supportive government policies along with high-grade, largely untapped geothermal resources spell economic opportunity.
About 217 MW of geothermal energy have been developed and made available to communities on the African Continent, where energy is more expensive and less available than anywhere else in the world. Most of this capacity, or about 202 MW, is in Kenya, which has three power plants (Olkaria 1, 2, and 3) operated by the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) and Ormat Technologies, and state-owned Geothermal Development Company (GDC) is currently drilling production wells at the site for Olkaria 4, a targeted 140-MW project.
But just 25 percent of the African population has access to electricity, and problems abound in the existing energy portfolio. Biomass production has led to unwanted deforestation, and hydropower plants lack adequate resource due to climate-change-induced droughts, Meseret Teklemariam Zemedkun, Program Manager for the United Nations Environment Programme’s African Rift Geothermal Development Facility (ARGeo) initiative told GEA.
In recent years, Africa’s countries have seen increased dependence on expensive, imported petro-products and diesel supplies. Oil-based fuels are increasingly expensive, and the East African economy is already battered by trade and subsidy practices employed by developed nations.
“Developing a geothermal power-based energy system allows the East African countries to have an indigenous generation system with a predictable supply and price,” said Long and Ralph.
Beyond the associated financial costs, African communities are sharply aware of the need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and other climate-related impediments, including deforestation by biomass production and the unavailability of hydro resources due to drought.
Expansion and further state-of-the-art geothermal facilities in Kenya and Ethiopia that are producing electricity today could be the best answer for those countries and others in the region. Geothermal is indigenous, renewable, and available year-round providing base load power generation. While African energy sources have been vulnerable to weather and climatic variations, geothermal has none of those problems.
Long and Ralph say that expanding the geothermal system to its ultimate capacity will allow countries such as Kenya to become net exporters to the region.
“The impact to economic growth, regional electrification, and price stability will be a game-changer for East Africa to transition from a donor-based economy to a truly emerging market,” they said.
“In a more general way, we imagine that the rapid development of geothermal resources in the Rift region will be an effective light-speed training ground for Rift-area government officials and regulators in the incorporation of private and global capital into the local infrastructure,” the two experts on geothermal energy in Africa added.
UNEP’s African Rift Geothermal Development Facility
The ARGeo initiative underwrites geothermal drilling risks and is designed to address barriers and facilitate investment in geothermal power production in six African Rift countries: Kenya, Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda. In an e-mail to GEA, representatives of geothermal company Power Engineers talked about the ARGeo initiative and its beginnings.
Funded by the Global Environment Facility, ARGeo is set up to support a regional network and provide technical assistance focused on surface investigation, risk minimization, policy frameworks, and bankable proposals to local or international financing sources, according to the UNEP Web site. Additional co-financing is provided by BGR (Germany) and ICEIDA (Iceland).
ARGeo officially launched in 2010, but the Power Engineers representatives remember its origins, not long after they began working in the region.
“Starting around 2002, in the midst of the aftershocks of the 9/11 attacks, KenGen hosted a start-up conference with a focus towards developing an East African geothermal collaborative,” Long and Ralph told GEA.
That first KenGen conference led to a series of semi-annual ARGeo Conferences (African Rift Geothermal Conferences) that are supported by academics and officials from Kenya’s neighbor nations of the African Rift Area. Long and Ralph noted the ARGeo Conferences are “substantial and well-attended.”