Kenya’s Energy Quandary

Geothermal development in the Kenyan Rift Valley shows that even renewable energy can be unsustainable in fragile environments.

aerial photo of an industrial facility in a tropic mountain rangephoto Geothermal Resources Council / Patrick WalshA government-led rush of geothermal energy development in Kenya’s Rift Valley threatens world-famous wildlife habitats, overtaxed water resources, and the homelands of nomadic tribes.

Slowing around a curve, I wind a rented, dented suv past the park ranger station and dozens of grazing zebras and wildebeest. Pulling over, I hear joggers and bikers converse as they cruise by, unfazed by the wild animals on the open grasslands around them. Nearing a park gate, visitors pause in front of ancient red volcanic cliffs to take in the antics of a troop of baboons, some tumbling over each other, others racing and tugging at each other’s fur, and a few perched high on the cliffs, surveying the landscape.

A scenic two-and-a-half hour drive from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, Hell’s Gate National Park is the only wildlife park in the country where visitors can walk, bike, and camp without a guide. Signs of geothermal activity are everywhere: hot springs, steam vents, obsidian formations, extinct volcanoes, and volcanic plugs. Below cliffs and gorges, animals roam, including giraffes, African buffalo, gazelles, elands, antelope, warthogs, and more than one hundred bird species. Covering just 26 square miles, the park attracts over 100,000 visitors each year, including many Kenyans on day trips. But some longtime visitors say they no longer recognize Hell’s Gate, as it is turning into more of an industrial park than a national park.

A few turns, and I meet a pipeline running alongside an industrial access road and follow it. Soon I pass construction workers in hard hats, joking during a break. Behind them is a sea of dirt, where the park’s vegetation has been torn up. Across it is a jumble of bulldozers and giant plastic tube segments, the latter to be connected into new steam pipeline expansions.

In the past three years, Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) has drilled over 90 new wells – each more than two kilometers down into the earth – inside Hell’s Gate National Park, in the geothermal Olkaria Area. White steam clouds dot the lush green slopes, rising from cooling towers of the three operating geothermal power stations inside the park: Olkaria I, II, and III. The clouds are visual reminders that water from Kenya’s most economically important lake, Lake Naivasha – now enduring a drought that was declared a national disaster in April – is going up in vapor to create electricity.

Here in Kenya’s Rift Valley, home to the first hominids, a government-led rush of geothermal energy development now threatens world-famous wildlife habitats, overtaxed water resources, and the homelands of nomadic tribes.

Kenya is Africa’s geothermal pioneer and the eighth largest geothermal energy producer in the world. The country tripled geothermal production from 167 megawatts in 2009 to 544 megawatts today and plans to double this output within six years. But that success has come at a price. While geothermal power is among the most renewable and low-carbon energy sources, Kenya is a case study in how even renewable energy projects can have unsustainable impacts when situated within fragile ecosystems.

Geothermally, East Africa is a busy place, with active volcanoes and lava fissures, geysers, bubbling lakes, and steam vents. Transecting it north to south is the East African Rift Valley, a 6,400-kilometer crack through the continent from Eritrea to Mozambique. Averaging about 50 kilometers wide, the Rift Valley has been spreading apart for over 10 million years, splitting the African tectonic plate slowly into the Nubian and Somali minor plates. Across the valley floor, the earth’s crust is stretched thin, making it relatively easy to drill down to reservoirs of magma-heated steam and hot water underground. Kenya’s geothermal plants pipe the steam to the surface and run it through turbines to generate electricity.

map showing geothermal resources in Kenya

Despite its immense geothermal energy potential, Kenya’s Rift Valley is a uniquely inconvenient place to drill steam wells and build power stations. It has one of the highest animal and bird diversities on Earth, the stuff of National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and BBC documentaries. Wildlife here includes lions, hippos, black rhinos, greater kudus, leopards, and cheetahs. The valley’s more than 900 bird species range from flamingos, pelicans, and parrots to the African spoonbill, blue-cheeked bee eater, and endangered grey crowned crane. Wildlife is the primary reason 1.2 million tourists visit Kenya each year.

All of Kenya’s geothermal success thus far has come from the Olkaria Area, but the government now plans to “replicate the success” of Olkaria by exploiting eight more Rift Valley sites. However, geothermal development in the Olkaria Area has had serious impacts on wildlife in Hell’s Gate National Park.

An African buffalo trapped under a geothermal steam pipe; a leopard hit and killed by KenGen workers speeding on an access road; a reintroduced Lammergeier vulture killed in a cooling exhauster; breeding of the Ruppell’s vulture – the world’s highest flying bird – disrupted for years after KenGen drilled a well directly in front of its cliffside breeding area (in violation of its memorandum of understanding with Kenya Wildlife Service); a giraffe that slipped and fell in an unprotected waste brine holding pool. These are just a few reported incidences of impacts on wildlife by geothermal development in Hell’s Gate.

Pipelines, power stations, cooling towers, waste brine pools, drilling sites for over 200 wells, construction machinery, speeding vehicles, and access roads – all these inhibit the free movement of the park’s thousands of animals everyday. They also strip vegetation, reducing the animals’ food supply.

“Overlooked in power production is power transportation – road networks, dump sites, tilled land,” says Kenyan ornithologist Simon Thomsett. He says the electricity network running from Hell’s Gate and across Kenya’s Rift Valley region forms an ill-designed “cat’s cradle of power line configurations” that is frying endangered birds. In January, Thomsett found a dead tawny eagle that had hit power lines running through Soysambu Conservancy, a protected Important Bird Area in the valley. Researchers also regularly report baboons electrocuted near Lake Nakuru.

Inside Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters in Nairobi, Peter Hongo, a cartographer and geographic information systems expert, maps wildlife issues for a living. He says the massive dust driven up by drilling steam wells, which typically goes on 24 hours a day for 60 days for each new well, settles on the leaves of surrounding vegetation. This blocks photosynthesis, reducing food supply for the many large herbivores that have made Hell’s Gate famous.

Geothermal waste brines spill regularly from broken culverts and overflowing brine pools built by KenGen inside the park. The brines run into the park’s natural waterways and gorges, from which both wild animals and the livestock of the local Maasai tribe drink. Waste brines contain highly concentrated minerals which can include toxins such as arsenic, boron, and mercury that can poison surface and groundwater.

More drilling in the Olkaria Area will further reduce wildlife habitat in Hell’s Gate National Park, say conservationists.

“More drilling in the Olkaria Area will further reduce wildlife habitat in Hell’s Gate National Park,” Hongo says. “This will increase competition among species for leftover space and food. Animals will relocate to other areas – including the nearby flower farms around Lake Naivasha. This will likely increase the human-wildlife conflict.”

Thomsett says geothermal development has reduced the park’s wildlife habitat by 50 percent, and he agrees ongoing drilling will reduce it further.

But as KenGen now adds three more power stations in Olkaria and targets more Rift Valley sites for geothermal development – backed by over one billion dollars in external loans and foreign investment – this may be only the start of the environmental impacts of geothermal development in Kenya.

Like the Olkaria Area, all eight new geothermal development sites also lie in the most biodiverse regions of the Rift Valley, Thomsett says. “The migration routes north and south of tens of thousands of birds funnel through this section of the rift, from Eurasia to Southern Africa. Adding new energy grids with power lines across the area will disrupt migrations enormously,” he says. “Kenya’s government has already allowed [electricity] pylons to cut right through protected Important Bird Areas, such as Soysambu Conservancy skirting Lake Nakuru, ignoring the fact that lines in front of pelicans and flamingoes will kill.” Kenya Wildlife Service calls Lake Nakuru “the world’s greatest ornithological spectacle.” Some 450 bird species have been recorded around the lake, which receives 300,000 visitors each year.

As Dr. Ronald DiPippo, a global geothermal expert and author of Geothermal Power Plants, writes: “It should be obvious that sites of rare natural beauty such as national parks ought to be off-limits to geothermal or any other type of industrial or commercial activity.”

Amid this year’s drought, the Red Cross reported in April that three million Kenyans needed emergency food aid. Both subsistence and cash crops failed, and tens of thousands of livestock died of thirst. Meanwhile, consumption of millions of liters of water each month for geothermal drilling and cooling towers continues. A report by Kenya’s state-owned Geothermal Development Company (GDC) says “one drilling rig consumes as much as 2,000 liters of water per minute.” US geothermal expert and author Jay Egg says cooling towers use “tens of thousands of gallons of water each day.”

Geothermal drilling uses water mixed with chemicals to make “mud,” which is injected into the drilled hole to help maintain its structure, cool the drill bit, and remove rock chips. Still more water is consumed by the cooling towers. Kenya’s geothermal power stations use a primary loop of geothermal steam to turn turbines to generate electricity; but afterwards, a secondary or cooling loop of water – drawn from Lake Naivasha – cools the steam in the primary loop into water so it can be reinjected back into the ground. Much of this cooling water then exits the system through a valve, forming vapor clouds – precious lake water lost to the atmosphere.

Not one of Kenya’s current or potential geothermal development sites has a sustainable water source. Its Rift Valley region, far from the ocean, has no major rivers and only relatively small lakes. To supply the Olkaria Area, KenGen constructed a 20 km pipeline carrying an estimated 30 million liters of water per month from Lake Naivasha.

“Water is more precious than electricity here, but we’re using water to make electricity,” says Nigel Carnelley, longtime operator of the popular eco-camp Fisherman’s Camp on Lake Naivasha’s shores. The lake is among Kenya’s six Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance, a top tourist attraction, and the primary source of drinking water, employment, and income for the local community. Lined with resorts and known for hippo-watching boat rides and over 400 bird species, Lake Naivasha is also the main irrigation source for both local small-scale farmers and the flower farming industry that forms 12 percent of Kenya’s economy and supplies 35 percent of the cut flowers sold in the European Union.

Kenya’s government is now constructing a second pipeline to remove still more water from Lake Naivasha for future drilling at the Suswa Area, about 80 km away. “The combined Olkaria-Suswa developments will squeeze the lake and the environment even harder,” says Richard Trillo, author of the Rough Guide to Kenya and Kenya program manager for the travel firm Expert Africa.

Dr. David Harper, an aquatic ecology expert at the University of Leicester, says KenGen will not reveal exactly how much water it extracts from the lake, but it is clearly the single largest user. He says the lake level rises and falls in natural cycles about every decade, and “when it goes down again, KenGen’s offtake literally could drain the lake.”

Meanwhile, the state-owned GDC is consuming 4,400 liters of groundwater per minute for drilling at another new site, the Menengai Area. It has also made a deal to get 1,500 liters per minute from the local Nakuru Water and Sanitation Services Company – which in this drought year has been heavily rationing water for 15 percent of its customers. In January, amid shortages affecting over 1.6 million Nakuru county residents, the utility said it could supply only half the demand for water and banned the use of river water for irrigation.

The Kenyan Rift Valley is the ancestral homeland of numerous tribes, including some 800,000 pastoral Maasai, who are an international symbol of the country. Despite their 400-year tenure in the region, KenGen has treated the Maasai in Olkaria as squatters. Ever since Kenya’s first geothermal power station, Olkaria I, was constructed in 1981, thousands of Maasai have been evicted and relocated to make way for drilling – almost entirely without compensation. Each new round of drilling has brought more, and sometimes violent, evictions.

photo of men in colorful outfits oudoors, one is jumping highphoto Ninara / FlickrEver since Kenya’s first geothermal station was built in 1981, thousands of Maasai have been evicted to make way for drilling.

In 2013, hundreds of hired goons accompanied by armed police burned down 247 Maasai homes in Narasha, where drilling was to start for the Olkaria IV plant. The raid left 2,000 Maasai homeless. Maasai community leader Jackson Shaa, who has received personal threats from KenGen, says the attack was the company’s attempt to avoid a resettlement agreement. Nonetheless, in 2014, KenGen was forced to resettle 150 of the 335 displaced Maasai families. Shaa says the families agreed to relocate only provided they receive freehold title to the new land – not the leasehold title KenGen has offered. Moreover, he says, bribery corrupted the selection of which among the project-affected families would be resettled, and the housing provided is substandard. In 2015, the Maasai began arbitration with KenGen and its funders, the European Investment Bank and the World Bank, which in October 2016 produced a lengthy Resettlement Action Plan promising everything from 1,700 acres to youth employment training programs, pipe repairs, and cash compensation. Shaa says that, as yet, little of the Action Plan has materialized.

Environmental anthropologist Dr. Deborah Nightingale of Nature Kenya says the rich wildlife of the Rift Valley protected areas – which brings billions of dollars in tourism revenue – is actually a result of Maasai livestock husbandry. The tribe rejects fences and the subdivision of rangelands as inimical to their way of life. As development projects shrink the remaining wild spaces in the Rift Valley, they push the Maasai and their herds into closer quarters with wild animals, leaving them with no way to avoid conflicts.

The Kenyan constitution guarantees compensation for property taken for the national interest. It also guarantees cultural heritage and a safe and clean environment. Jackson Shaa says withholding rightful freeholder titles to Maasai ancestral lands to protect GDC’s interests not only violates the constitution, it “undermines the Maasai way of life.”

Kenya’s government hopes geothermal energy will help it become a middle-income, industrialized country. Its energy ministry estimates the total geothermal energy potential of Kenya’s Rift Valley region to be 7,000 to 10,000 MW – over three to five times the current energy consumption of the entire country. The government’s Vision 2030 Plan includes a sevenfold increase in national grid capacity, including 5,000 MW from geothermal.

As Kenya’s loan-fueled energy push rolls on despite the impacts on endangered wildlife and water resources, exploration and drilling are already underway in three of GDC’s eight targeted Rift Valley sites: at two volcanoes, Menengai Crater and Mount Suswa, and a 100-kilometer stretch called the Baringo-Silali block.

The Baringo-Silali block spans a continuous chain of four geothermal areas surrounding Lake Baringo and three volcanoes. It includes Lake Baringo National Park, a Ramsar Wetland and Important Bird Area with over 450 bird species – park guides say they can spot about 200 bird species in three hours there – as well as hippos, Nile crocodiles, and giraffes. The shores of Lake Baringo are the homeland of the Njemps tribe, which is now fighting to keep its land as KenGen plans to drill 400 steam wells in this block.

Funded by a $91 million loan from German development bank KfW, the first of three initial development phases is due to start this year with the drilling of 15 to 20 wells. Government estimates say Baringo-Silali could generate 3,000 MW, and officials have announced future plans to export the electricity to Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and South Sudan.

GDC began drilling in 2011 inside the mouth of Menengai Crater, a massive shield volcano with one of the world’s largest calderas. The 88-square-kilometer forested crater is home to leopards, baboons, and rare antelopes. Yet an Environmental Impact Assessment by GDC – the same company doing the drilling – makes only brief mention of the species found there and offers little data from the “walk through” inspection. GDC estimates Menengai’s potential to be 1,600 MW, but due to delays completion isn’t expected until late 2018.

photo of a giraffe, browsing near raised pipelinesphoto Geothermal Resources Council / Abraham Sam SamuelGeothermal projects are shrinking the remaining wild spaces in the Rift Valley.

“At Menengai site, Kenya Geothermal Development Company has spent $550 million so far on drilling, without so far producing one watt of electricity,” says Trillo. Nonetheless, GDC advertises the building of 50 km of industrial access roads and a 30-km water pipeline system, partly drawn from the local Nakuru County water supply, as top achievements on its online “Menengai Score Card.”

In this nation ranked 139 out of 168 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, many question both the scale and the motives of the government’s geothermal development plans. In November 2015, six senior managers at GDC – including the CEO and managing director – were fired due to glaring “tendering irregularities,” found during a graft probe by Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission. They had inflated the cost of moving drilling rigs at Menengai from $145,000 to $405,000.

“KenGen and GDC are both corrupt, from the bottom all the way to the top. We already have an oversupply of electricity, but the World Bank keeps giving them loans,” says tourist camp operator Carnelley. Kenya has an installed electricity capacity of over 2,295 MW with a demand of only 1,600 MW.

“How much power does East Africa need? Is the surplus meant for export to southern Africa?” asks Thomsett. “If so, the companies profit from the loss of our biodiversity.”

The electrification of Africa, where two thirds of the population lacks electricity, is a priority not only for the continent, but for the world. Billions of dollars in public and private investment are now pouring into African energy projects, especially renewable energy – from solar parks in Mali’s Sahara to undersea tidal generators in Ghana’s coastal waters to geothermal plants in the vast East African Rift Valley region.

With Kenya’s success, its neighbors are eager to get in the geothermal game, sending many delegations to observe the Olkaria power stations. In the past three years, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Djibouti, and Tanzania have all signed agreements with Toshiba, the world’s largest manufacturer of geothermal turbines.

To spur geothermal development, in 2010 the African Union partnered with the EU-Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund and the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development to establish a fund known as the Geothermal Risk Mitigation Facility. In 2015 and 2016, the fund approved a combined $152 million for geothermal drilling and exploration projects in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Comoros, and Djibouti. The US established the US-East Africa Geothermal Partnership in 2012, in part to promote the role of US geothermal firms in the region.

Ethiopia is now redeveloping its long-dormant Aluto-Langano site, initially built in 1998, with plans to make it Africa’s largest geothermal plant. It projects 450 MW coming online by 2020 and 1,000 MW by 2030. The Geological Survey of Ethiopia estimates that the country could generate 10,000 MW of geothermal energy – nearly five times its current national grid capacity.

But Kenya’s success may not translate easily to the rest of East Africa. “Each site has extremely different groundwater chemistry,” says DiPippo. He says highly acidic groundwater can cause severe corrosion to geothermal wells and turbines. “In some places, they’ve found groundwater more acidic than battery acid. Kenya has good quality water, almost a neutral pH – they’re lucky. But the water is horrible in Ethiopia … it has an extremely acidic pH, highly corrosive. So you have to engineer each site on its own terms; you can’t do cookie-cutter geothermal power plants.”

Countries around the world with geothermal potential are facing new challenges balancing energy development and conservation. Many geothermal sites are in scenic protected areas with high biodiversity supported by rich volcanic soils. Indonesia, the world’s third-largest geothermal energy producer after the US and the Philippines, rejected a proposal last year to rezone its Mount Leuser National Park for geothermal development, in order to protect the rainforest habitat of endangered species, including tigers, rhinos, and orangutans. Similarly, Costa Rica, which aims to get 20 percent of its energy from geothermal by 2035, rejected a bill in 2014 that would have allowed geothermal exploration in national parks. DiPippo says the US and Costa Rica have the most stringent environmental restrictions on geothermal development.

It remains to be seen whether Kenya and other East African nations can harness geothermal energy without further endangering wildlife, water resources, and tribal homelands in the Rift Valley’s fragile ecosystems.

“The only thing that’s ‘green’ about geothermal energy is that it isn’t burning fossil fuels,” says Dr. Nightingale. “There’s nothing positive for the environment about drilling steam wells and building power stations and grids in conservation areas, where it endangers wildlife, damages tourism, and displaces local communities.”

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