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Special Report
A young Maasai stands in front of a wind turbine on the Ngong Hills in Kenya. (© Frederic Courbet/Corbis)

Can Kenya Light the Way Toward a Clean-Energy Economy?

The absence of a robust fossil fuel infrastructure makes the African nation ripe for energy innovation

Developers have already begun to tap into new energy opportunities, with geothermal leading the way. By next year, a series of geothermal wells will provide 280 megawatts of power to the grid, up from 157 megawatts today. By 2030, geothermal power is expected to meet more than a quarter of the country’s energy needs. “Geothermal is a very stable, sustainable source,” says Gregory Ngahu, a spokesman for Kenya Power, the nation’s only electric utility. “It’s quite robust.” 

Wind and hydropower projects account for more than 95 percent of the rest of the new capacity planned through 2030. Yet renewables are not a shoo-in for Kenya’s electrification push. Over the last few years, Kenya has discovered oil, natural gas, and coal deposits within its borders, tempting some to consider expansion of traditional fossil-fuel capacity. Hydropower has stumbled as climate change-linked droughts reduce water flow through critical rivers. And solar isn’t part of the Vision 2030 plan.

Another challenge for renewables is the need for new infrastructure to connect large projects to the grid. Led by state-backed organizations, Kenya’s power industry is building out several transmission lines to import power from neighboring Ethiopia, and also to bring electricity from new renewable projects to population centers where it’s needed. Developers of the Lake Turkana wind farm, for example, are building a 428-kilometer (266-mile) high-voltage transmission line from Lake Turkana to the existing grid. Crossing the geothermal-rich Rift Valley, the line will pave the way for future energy projects, Aldwych’s Chestnutt says. “Now, developers will take the initiative.”

Cutting the cord

Despite these efforts, the majority of Kenya’s population won’t gain access to electricity from these sources. Even though urban areas are growing dramatically, most Kenyans live far from the grid in rural towns and villages. And those who do live close to the grid can’t always tap into its benefits. Kenya Power charges approximately $400 USD per household for a grid connection.

“That is so far away, if you’re a poor Kenyan family,” says Jon Bøhmer, founder of Nairobi-based Kyoto Energy. “There are many places where the power lines cross over people’s huts and they have no way to connect to the grid.”

As a result, there’s a growing recognition that serving these areas will require a different approach. Locating a variety of smaller-scale resources in a single location, close to demand, could help expand energy access more quickly. Startups, nonprofits and even Kenya Power are all beginning to look to solar-based microgrids—small, self-contained power grids—as one possible solution.

While individual solar lighting systems, like the d.Light, have received much positive press in the U.S. and Europe, microgrids have the potential to power local industries. Bøhmer, a Norwegian software engineer who in 2006 moved with his Kenyan wife to Thika, near Nairobi, has introduced a solar microgrid system specifically for this market.

“Silicon Valley entrepreneurs come in saying, ‘We raised $3 million from a venture capitalist in San Francisco,’ with their 3-watt solar panel and LED light,” says Bøhmer. “They think they’ve sorted it out. Sure, now someone has lights and can charge their mobile. Great. But in the West, when you got power, you could run a machine, and build a business. That business could grow and build an entire industry. That kind of story is not possible, if you’re going to do it with these dead-end, stop-gap solutions.”

Bøhmer’s solution, dubbed the Butterfly Solar Farm, uses concentrating solar photovoltaics (PV) to generate electricity and captures solar thermal energy to heat water. His first customer is commercial tea producer whose operations include both agricultural and drying facilities.

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