Kenya straddles a volcanic rift. It’s a green-energy geyser

In 2010 fewer than one in five Kenyans had electricity. Now some 60 percent do—thanks mostly to geothermal power from the East African Rift.

Photograph by Nichole Sobecki, National Geographic
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A Maasai herder watches his cattle as plumes of steam billow from a geothermal power facility in Hell's Gate National Park in Kenya.
Photograph by Nichole Sobecki, National Geographic
This story was produced and published by National Geographic through a reporting partnership with the United Nations Development Programme to increase understanding of sustainable development.

As he stares down from the ridge toward the steaming panorama below, Victor Otieno has a bird’s eye view of Kenya’s natural beauty—and of its planned industrial future.

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Fischer's Tower, an 80-foot-high volcanic column, marks the eastern entrance to Hells Gate National Park, 45 miles northwest of Nairobi. Best known for its rock formations, the park is also home to herds of large mammals and more than 100 species of bird.

Here in the East African Rift Valley, the 2,000 mile-long volcanic trench that’s slowly ripping the continent apart, acacia-speckled hills roll gently toward the horizon, eventually giving way to towering escarpments, caustic soda lakes and one of Africa’s biggest concentrations of wildlife. Less than a mile away lies the boundary of Hell's Gate National Park, a protected area that is home to herds of buffalo, zebras, giraffes, and more than 100 species of birds—as well as to an ancient gorge that’s said to resemble the gates to the underworld.

Otieno, a geologist with Kenya’s state-owned power company, KenGen, contemplates the view in a hard hat and a fluorescent yellow vest.

Immediately below us lies Olkaria IV, the newest of four geothermal power plants in the area. Otieno points out the infrastructure: the meandering stacks of pipes carrying boiling-hot water and steam from wells bored deep into the volcanic terrain; the building in which twin, steam-powered turbines generate 70 megawatts each; the transformers that step up the voltage of that electricity and inject it into the national grid, and the cooling towers that prepare the spent geothermal fluid for re-injection into the earth.

“As much as this is a natural resource, you must also re-inject to sustain the system,” Otieno explains over the hiss of steam, which hovers in the air along with a faint odor of sulfur. Assuming a geothermal reservoir is properly managed, he adds, an individual well can produce power-generating steam for decades.

Long celebrated for its natural beauty, Kenya is a country in the throes of industrialization and modernization—and that requires electrification. Today, despite two decades of robust economic growth, sub-Saharan Africa remains the most under-electrified region on Earth, with an estimated 600 million people who still lack power. The 48 countries in the region, excluding South Africa, together have less than half the generating capacity of Spain. In Kenya in 2010, 33 million people lacked electricity in their homes.

But by 2016, according to the most recent World Bank data, that number had fallen to less than 22 million—even as the country added another seven million people to its population, now around 51 million. The percentage of Kenyans with access to electricity nearly tripled during that period, from 19 percent to 56 percent.

The government’s goal is universal access by 2020. No country on Earth has made more rapid progress lately than Kenya toward that key developmental milestone.

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Prospecting for a new source of steam, roughnecks use a 130-foot-tall rig to drill into a hillside next to Olkaria II. Drilling a geothermal well costs around $6 million—but in the long run geothermal energy is relatively cheap.

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Steam is vented from a recently completed well at Hell's Gate, allowing technicians to measure the well's output and chemistry before using it to power a turbine.

A key reason is the rapid expansion of geothermal power generation. Geothermal electricity, mostly produced here in Olkaria, now accounts for 28 percent of Kenya’s grid capacity, and its importance is only set to grow. It’s relatively clean and low-carbon, and in the long run it’s relatively cheap. And unlike other renewable sources such as solar, wind, and even hydro, geothermal is available year-round and around the clock. On some days right now, half the power used in Kenya comes from inside the earth.

“The reliability of geothermal plants is very high because steam is not affected by the vagaries of weather,” says John Omenge, until recently head of geo-exploration at Kenya’s Ministry of Energy. “This is the main reason why we’ve increased our geothermal focus. It has become our source of baseload power.”

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A guide leads two tourists through the Ol Njorowa Gorge, one of the main attractions in Hell's Gate National Park.

The demand is great

Two hours by car from Olkaria’s steaming hillsides, along heavily trafficked roads that snake over the Rift Valley’s eastern escarpment, the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, is a city of contrasts: Densely populated slums are crammed between modern expressways and sparkling high-end shopping malls.

Soaring demand for electricity comes from rich and poor alike. In Kibera, an informal settlement of several hundred thousand people, jury-rigged live wires protrude like spiderwebs from mud- and corrugated iron shacks—powering hair salons, video game parlors, and pubs frequented by men watching English Premiere League football.

In the countryside, where generations of Kenyan children have spent evenings learning times tables by lantern light, rural homes are increasingly being linked to the grid as well. In August, the Ministry of Energy launched the second phase of its $150 million Last Mile Electricity Project, which aims to bring connections to an additional 2.5 million rural households. Extensions of the national grid are part of the government’s strategy for achieving universal access to electricity. So are solar- or wind-powered mini-grids on the scale of a village and pay-as-you-go home solar systems.

It’s the national grid, though, that underpins the government’s ambitious efforts to build infrastructure. The list of state-commissioned megaprojects includes new international air- and sea-ports, a road and rail corridor linking Kenya’s remote north (as well as Ethiopia and South Sudan) to the Indian Ocean, and a long delayed “techno-city” to be built in the plains east of Nairobi. To create jobs for armies of unemployed youths, authorities want to draw more investment in manufacturing—long stymied by high electric rates and an unreliable supply.

Kenya aims to be an “upper middle-income country” by 2030. But under the Paris climate agreement it has also promised to increase its carbon emissions by less than 40 percent over their 2010 levels—instead of allowing them to double, as they would under a “business as usual” scenario.

Even if some of its grand projects fall through, the country will require far more electric power than the current installed capacity of 2,370 megawatts. Over the coming decade demand is projected t0 rise anywhere from six to 15 percent per year. How Kenya will meet that demand is a central question for its future.

Today, hydroelectric dams are the largest contributor to its grid capacity, at 36 percent of the total. Though largely emission-free, they have a significant downside: unreliability during drought. Masinga dam, a hydrolectric station on the Tana River, periodically shuts down when rains are sparse; Sondu Miriu, the largest dam in Kenya’s densely populated west, was running at less than 15 percent capacity during a dry spell earlier this year.

The country currently gets five percent of its generation capacity from other renewables such as wind and solar—a figure that’s set to increase with the opening this year of a 310-megawatt wind farm, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest, near the shores of Lake Turkana.

But Kenya is also turning to dirtier alternatives. When water levels at Masinga and other dams are low, authorities are forced to rely heavily on expensive, polluting diesel plants—which account for 31 percent of grid capacity but are ideally used only for backup. Even worse, near the historic town of Lamu on the Indian Ocean coast, a private consortium has planned a 1,050-megawatt coal plant. The plan is controversial, and its future is uncertain after the Kenyan High Court stayed the project in early October.

That’s the context for the country’s push to develop its exceptional geothermal resources. Geothermal plants aren’t pristine: carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrogen sulfide all bubble out of the hot water. But one kilowatt-hour of geothermal power, according to World Bank data, emits roughly one-sixth to one-ninth of the carbon emitted by coal.

It's not cheap

Kenya’s affair with geothermal dates to the 1950s, with the drilling of its first exploratory wells under the British colonial government. Olkaria I came online in 1981. For the next two decades, though, the sector barely progressed.

The primary challenge was that geothermal exploration is risky and capital intensive. Even in areas where surface studies suggest there’s a viable resource, individual wells, which are up to two miles deep, less than a foot in diameter at the bottom, and cost several million dollars each, frequently miss the steam-containing fractures. According to the World Bank, which has supported geothermal projects in Kenya and other developing countries, exploratory drilling costs $20 to $30 million on average. If a resource is confirmed, it typically takes several years and another $20 to $120 million to drill the additional wells needed for a power plant.

“No matter how well you know the industry, the risk of geothermal development, particularly in the early stages, is incredibly high,” says Pierre Audinet, lead energy specialist at the World Bank. “You literally have to sink all that money up front without any security as to whether you will every recover it.”

That’s why most countries that have managed to build vibrant geothermal industries, including the United States (mainly in California and Nevada), have done so with significant help from government. In Kenya, the Ministry of Energy financed early wells that showed the Olkaria field’s potential.

Only in the past decade has the industry truly flourished, with a mix of continued financing from the state, as well as from private investors and multinational lenders like the World Bank. Today Kenya is the largest geothermal power producer in Africa and the ninth largest in the world, with an installed capacity of more than 650 megawatts and plans to expand well beyond that.

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Mary Shaa, a Maasai woman, milks a cow before preparing her family's morning tea in the village of Narasha, near Hell's Gate. Maasai families in this village and nearby have been displaced as a result of geothermal energy development.

Greener than the alternatives

Not everyone in Kenya is celebrating the industry’s progress. Olkaria’s steam, as well as geothermal resources elsewhere in the Rift Valley planned for exploration, lies under land long inhabited by the Maasai. A cattle-herding people known for their commitment to traditional ways, they have a history of being pushed aside to make way for developments in tourism, energy, and agriculture—a history that began under the British colonial government but continued after Kenya gained independence in 1963.

Over cups of Kenyan tea in Nairobi, Michael Tiampati, a Maasai who grew up in Olkaria and now heads the Pastoralist Development Network of Kenya, an NGO that advocates for indigenous rights, paints an unsightly picture of the geothermal sector’s impact on his community.

The troubles began in the 1980s, Tiampati tells me, when the government evicted the first area Maasai families to create Hell's Gate park—cutting them off from grazing land and from sources of the chalk and red ochre they use to decorate their bodies for ceremonies. Geothermal development squeezed the Maasai even further. Tiampati says speculators have made claims to Maasai land believed to harbor geothermal resources—in one case chasing Maasai villagers from their homes and burning down more than 50 houses in an attempt to dislodge a community.

In 2014, KenGen itself peacefully relocated 150 Maasai families from the vicinity of Olkaria IV, which was then under construction. Today those families live several miles away in Resettlement Action Plan village—a windswept hamlet of cinderblock houses, water tanks, and a primary school. To the outside eye, the dwellings here are an improvement on traditional Maasai huts of sticks and cow dung. But residents feel uprooted. “Most of the land here is too steep for our animals,” Sakayian Kamasiai, a community elder, tells me as our Olkaria tour passes briefly through the settlement.

Geothermal power has had a visible environmental impact on Hell's Gate. The first three Olkaria power plants lie inside the park itself. Roughly half the park has effectively become an industrial zone, says Serah Munguti of Nature Kenya, Africa’s oldest environmental organization. Energy authorities insist they’ve been sensitive to the needs of local wildlife; steam pipes, for example, are elevated at intervals to allow even the tallest giraffes to move about at will.

But Munguti says that critically endangered Ruppell’s vultures ceased nesting in the park in 2012, chased away by drilling. “This was their only breeding site within a protected area in Kenya,” she says. She also accuses KenGen of clearing vegetation excessively and of contaminating local water sources with metal- and mineral-laden brine.

Omenge responds that almost all that brine—the waste fluid from power production—is reinjected deep underground. There’s nothing particularly destructive about geothermal power per se, he argues; any kind of development can have an effect on wildlife. Even KenGen’s critics admit that geothermal power remains greener than most alternatives.

The deep frontier

Kenya’s neighbors, who share its favorable Rift Valley geology, have also begun efforts to exploit geothermal energy. Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda are all in early stages of exploration. In Ethiopia, authorities have contracted an Icelandic firm, Reykjavik Geothermal, to lead the development of two 500-megawatt projects, which will come online in stages. “In our mind, the resources in Ethiopia are as good as in Olkaria,” says Gunnar Gunnarsson, the company’s chief operating officer.

Meanwhile Kenya is charging ahead. Olkaria V, the next of several Olkaria power stations being planned, is now under construction and due to come online next year. Further west, inside Menengai Crater, a shield volcano rising from the Rift Valley floor, the state-run Geothermal Development Company is developing steam fields that will fuel plants run by three private producers.

According to Omenge, more than 20 additional sites are currently being studied as geothermal prospects. Ultimately, he says, identified steam resources in Kenya could yield more than 10,000 megawatts of power—almost as much as is currently produced by geothermal plants worldwide.

At Olkaria, Otieno gives me an up-close look at KenGen I, a 130-foot tall, 2,000- horsepower, Chinese-built rig that’s in the process of drilling a two-mile-deep hole into a hillside. It will take 30 to 50 days, he says. Then the rig will be disassembled and transported to another site to drill again.

Jonathan W. Rosen is a journalist reporting from sub-Saharan Africa. In May 2017 he wrote about Kenya’s plans to build a coal plant near the historic Swahili Coast town of Lamu.

Nichole Sobecki is a photojournalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.