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How great divide could light up the lives of millions

June 7, 2005 - Xan Rice - The Times

HIGH in Africa's Great Rift Valley, a young man walks towards a bubbling pond that burps spouts of white water high into the air.

Using a long wooden stick, he gently lowers a plastic bag containing two raw eggs into the boiling water.

Watching from a distance, Mariita Obuya chuckles at the tourist lark. But Mr Obuya, a senior geophysicist with Kenya's state energy company KenGen, is not here to cook his lunch. He has a much more important task: to assess whether the volcanic activity that created the hot springs can be used to light up the homes of his countrymen and of millions of people across East Africa.

"Under the Rift Valley we have a natural resource that can be of huge benefit to Africans," said Mr Obuya, gesturing towards the clouds of steam wafting across the muddy shoreline of Lake Bogoria.

He is not alone in his belief. Governments throughout eastern Africa — where less than 10 per cent of the population has access to electricity — are fast realizing that the key to bringing clean and cheap power to millions of poor people may lie beneath their feet.

Experts at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimate that there is enough geothermal energy under the Rift Valley — a 9,500-km (5,900-mile) fissure in the Earth’s crust stretching from Mozambique to the Red Sea — to satisfy the entire power demand of most eastern African countries. Until now, only Kenya has taken advantage of its indigenous resource, drilling wells a mile or more into the ground at Naivasha, 50 miles from Nairobi, the capital. The escaping steam powers turbines that supply about 10 per cent of the country’s electricity.

But with fears growing over the environmental impact of burning carbon fuels such as coal and diesel to produce power, geothermal energy is seen as the ideal resource to help poor countries to cope with increasing demand for electricity. UNEP is leading a big push to help Kenya’s neighbours — including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda and Tanzania — to participate.

Modern geothermal plants release few harmful emissions, and any waste water can be reinjected deep into the ground, making the energy largely renewable. Vagaries of the weather, which can affect hydroelectric and solar power projects, are of no concern.

While countries such as Iceland and New Zealand have used the Earth’s heat to produce power for many years, the stumbling block to exploration in Africa has been the costs. Drilling a well typically costs more than £1 million — a huge outlay when there is no guarantee of hitting steam.

But later this year it is hoped that the Global Environment Facility, an international body that helps developing countries to set up environmentally friendly projects, will approve a $40 million (£22 million) grant to minimize the risks of exploration in the Rift Valley.

Companies, whether state-owned or private, will receive grants to cover a portion of their drilling costs. If exploration is unsuccessful, 75 per cent of the money spent will be reimbursed.

Under the new drive towards clean power, KenGen hopes to ensure that a third of Kenya’s power needs will come from geothermal energy within 15 to 20 years. In dry countries, such as Eritrea and Djibouti, where hydroelectric projects are not an option, the potential usage is far higher.

Mr Obuya, who is leading a team of 30 geologists, chemists and technicians in exploring the Lake Bogoria region in western Kenya, said that KenGen was looking at ways to set up small plants in outlying areas. Not only will this bring power to poor communities for the first time, he said, but it will also enhance their economic prospects.

Rift Valley

Created more than 20 million years ago by the slow separation of East Africa’s tectonic plates.
Takes the form of a deep fracture in the Earth’s crust, forming valleys and bodies of water that are flanked by parallel fault lines.
As the plates pulled apart, lava was forced up, forming volcanoes, including Mount Kilimanjaro.
The bones of several ancestors of modern humans have been found including a skeleton that is 3.18 million years old.

Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.

Updated: 2016/06/30

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