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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

In the United States, we tend to think of electricity as something that is either on or off. You either have power, or you don’t. But in Nairobi, Kenya, electricity is experienced more like the hot water in an old building: sputtering, low-voltage brownouts contrast with sudden voltage spikes and power surges. Inconsistent electrical power does more harm than a suddenly ice-cold shower; refrigerators, computers and manufacturing equipment are frequently damaged, and routines are disrupted. Power outages cost the country an estimated 2 percent of gross domestic product annually.

That’s because the country’s power plants can provide just 1.2 gigawatts of electricity. The United States has more than 960 gigawatts of capacity, and one of its largest utilities, American Electric Power, serves about 5 million customers with its 38 gigawatts of generating capacity. In Kenya, that 1.2 gigawatt capacity serves more than 10 million customers, including homes, businesses, and industry—less than 30 percent of the entire country’s population. The remaining 70 percent have no electricity at all.

Kenya’s “Vision 2030” plan, widely praised when it was announced in 2008, calls for 10 percent annual economic growth, and estimates that at least 20 gigawatts of new energy capacity will need to come online in the next decade to support it. To achieve that goal, dozens of efforts are underway to aggressively expand Kenya’s electric power infrastructure and, in doing so, to “leapfrog” over fossil fuels toward a clean-energy economy.

The idea of leapfrogging first emerged when cellphones swept the continent, bypassing traditional landline technology. The number of cellphones in use in Africa ballooned to more than 615 million in 2011, from 16.5 million a decade earlier—a surge that ever since has spurred optimism among everyone from local politicians and NGOs to international businesses and media that other cutting edge technologies could carve a similar trajectory. Because of the opportunities opened up by Vision 2030 and other factors, nowhere does this excitement run higher than in Kenya’s energy sector.

Taking the leap

The lack of an incumbent telecommunications industry or existing telephony infrastructure played a critical role in the cellphone’s success in Africa, and for many, the absence of existing energy infrastructure suggests that the country has a similar opportunity to adopt and scale the use of new technologies quickly, avoiding the mistakes of the past. In this case, that means avoiding the fossil-fuel–lined path to development.

“In many ways, the beauty of Africa is that you're almost starting with a blank canvas,” says Bob Chestnutt, a London-based project director for Aldwych International, which is developing a 300-megawatt wind farm near Kenya’s Lake Turkana. “You really do have the opportunity to be innovative. You're not dealing with the legacy of 40, 50 years of fossil generation.”

Renewables to the rescue?

Kenya is particularly well positioned for an end-run around fossil fuels. Its location along the equator bestows the country with plentiful sunlight (on average, each square meter collects an estimated 4.5 kilowatt-hours per day of solar radiation, which can be converted to electricity; a more northern climate like Boston would be expected to get about 3.6 kilowatt-hours per square meter per day). In the Lake Turkana region, Kenya also has some of the world’s greatest wind potential. And the Great Rift Valley, which carves a jagged arc through the heart of Kenya, sits atop a hot spot in the earth’s crust that creates ideal conditions for geothermal wells. At a policy level, it doesn’t hurt that Kenya has dropped its import duties on renewable energy technologies.

Much of the nation’s energy today comes from large hydropower projects, many of them part of a series of linked dams and reservoirs known as the Seven Forks scheme. Located primarily along the Tana and Turkwel rivers, hydropower provides about 800 megawatts of electricity to Kenya’s grid. However, there’s little room for hydropower to grow; many rivers run dry for a good portion of the year, limiting their ability to provide consistent electricity.

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