WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The East African hotbed called the Rift Valley is already validated in the global geothermal sector by successful operations in Kenya and beyond nearby borders, and is poised to be one of the fastest growing and sustained geothermal markets in the world in the coming decades.
The region represents “a huge export market for U.S. geothermal companies,” noted Stephen Hirsch, Director of the U.S.-East Africa Geothermal Partnership (EAGP), a public-private partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA).
Some say U.S. companies may not be acting fast enough. Martin Mwangi, who founded GeoSteam Services Ltd in order to provide geothermal consultancy, goods, and services in the East African region, said that the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) and Geothermal Development Company (GDC) recently procured a total of six rigs from China, with very little interest shown from U.S. companies to participate in these bids.
Mwangi first became involved in the geothermal sector in 1981 as an employee of KenGen at the Olkaria Geothermal of Project. “My general perception it that U.S. companies are not aggressively keen to get into the geothermal business in the East Africa region,” he told GEA.
He believes the U.S. companies have the technology and quality goods and services that are needed in the geothermal industry, however: “They need to compete and participate much more.” He suggested joining in initiatives similar to EAGP and participating in international tenders for goods and services, including for training.
Recent News Briefs from the Local Geothermal News Market:
Progress in East African geothermal markets has been touted by local news sources. These updates have also been in recent issues of GEA’s free weekly newsletter.
Late last year KenGen announced plans to seek public-private partnerships through competitive tendering processes in order to raise financing for up to 560 MW of geothermal resources (Engineeringnews.co.za). The company has also completed a pilot 5-MW portable geothermal station and is now considering 14 smaller plants, with a combined capacity of 65 MW.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the African Union Commission just this month joined in a Memorandum of Understanding, laying out a plan to capitalize on development of the geothermal resource in East Africa.
The International Renewable Energy Agency has also gotten involved. In a report, they note African countries are experiencing some of the world’s fastest growth economically (irena.org).
A recent article on Allafrica.com highlights the community-level benefits of geothermal energy as the Olkaria geothermal plant brings first-time electricity to new areas in Kenya. There were fewer outages, people felt safer when out at night, and small business owners reported being able to stay open regular hours. Schools were able to stay open and small business owners were successful enough send their children to school for the first time.
Timing Is Right for Expanded Geothermal through East Africa-U.S. Partnerships
Sam Abraham of Geothermal Resource Group has been involved with geothermal drilling in Africa since Orpower 4, an Ormat subsidiary, started the expansion phase for the Olkaria power plant and the company became project coordinator in 2010.
“The East African geothermal sector is going through a very important phase where additional power capacity is being added by the three major players - KenGen, GDC and Orpower,” Abraham told GEA. “At the same time, the transmission grid has to be upgraded, and the future looks really promising for Kenya especially as a major power exporter.
“[O]ther countries like Rwanda [are] ready to start drilling and increase the share of geothermal energy for their domestic power production,” he added.
In conjunction with efforts coordinated by the EAGP, in November Abraham attended the 4th African Rift Geothermal Conference (ARGeo C-4), hosted by the Government of Kenya in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Geothermal Association of Kenya (GAK) in Nairobi, Kenya.
The conference brought together geothermal specialists, Cabinet ministers, diplomats, development partners, and other energy sector stakeholders from about 10 countries.
But Mwangi said in prior years the U.S. has been conspicuously absent from the conference and the East African geothermal sector. A main objective of the conference conceived in 2003 was aimed at mobilizing international companies, particularly U.S., but: “Unfortunately this did not happen,” he said. Very few U.S. companies participated in the subsequent ARGeo conferences in Ethiopia (2006), Uganda (2008), and Djibouti (2010).
The U.S. industry is now taking note of the rapid development in the region and used the recent ARGeo Conference as a springboard to get acquainted with key players and opportunities in the sector.
In many ways, the ARGeo C-4 conference was also an opportunity for representatives of African entities to connect with U.S. representatives, and EAGP represented an umbrella support system to facilitate connection through personal ties between East African geothermal players and their U.S. counterparts.
What Sparks Interest in the East African Geothermal Markets?
Dr. Lisa Shevenell, President of ATLAS Geosciences Inc., is an expert in the U.S. industry and a newcomer to the East Africa geothermal markets. She attended the ARGeo conference in conjunction with EAGP efforts.
Shevenell told GEA that the East African Rift zone’s significant potential for large, high-temperature geothermal systems caught her attention. “The countries have a demonstrated interest in pursuing economic development for their populations using indigenous sources of power,” she said. “Kenya, in particular, is actively developing its geothermal resources and providing the financial backing to do so. Given they have a large resource base, this could translate into long-term development efforts by Kenya, and provide a variety of business opportunities for U.S. firms with experience in all aspects of geothermal development.
Additionally, the East African geothermal sector is “proactive about developing their geothermal resources, much more so than is the case in the U.S. at this time,” she said.