Kenya’s geothermal success story holds important lessons for other parts of Africa

Kenya has made heroic progress on electricity access in recent years. From 2013 to 2016 the proportion of Kenyan households with an electricity connection jumped from just 27 percent to 55 percent. The Government has ambitious plans to deliver 95 percent access by 2020.

A key factor in this success is that Kenya’s state power corporation has invested heavily in “last mile” grid connections: prioritising communities that live relatively close to existing power infrastructure so they can get connected as quickly as possible.

Another factor is that Kenya has been exploiting its rich resources of geothermal power. Last year it opened the world’s largest geothermal power station at Olkaria, which now supplies a fifth of the nation’s electricity.

Using funds from the African Development Bank and international donors, another geothermal project currently in construction will supply power to 500,000 households and 300,000 small businesses.

Geothermal energy works by harnessing the heat from the planet’s core. At certain points in the earth’s crust, this heat comes close to the earth’s surface and can be used to create steam and drive a turbine, generating electricity.

Geothermal is considered virtually renewable, producing only a tiny amount of carbon dioxide. A key advantage of geothermal compared to other renewables is that it can provide “baseload power”. This means the energy is there to be used whenever it’s needed and is not dependent on sunlight or weather conditions.

The main disadvantage is that geothermal power it is limited to countries with the right geological activity.

It’s estimated that Africa as a whole has around 14 gigawatts of geothermal energy that could be potentially exploited. (For comparison, a 1 gigawatt power plant can provide enough electricity for around 1 million UK homes.) The countries with significant geothermal potential are all in East Africa and include Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique.

Kofi Annan recently said that Africa needs a “tenfold increase” in power production, if it is to have any hope of delivering universal electricity access by 2030. For countries that have it, geothermal has a key role to play in providing that power.