Out With the Coal & Oil, In With the Geothermal in East Africa’s Rift Valley

An average 30-40 miles wide and stretching some 4,000 miles from Jordan in southwestern Asia through East Africa and to offshore Mozambique, the East Africa Rift Valley is part of the even larger Great Africa Rift Zone. It’s a region with a famed, storied past and tradition of scientific inquiry across a wide range of fields, including physical anthropologists’ discoveries of some of the earliest hominids and seminal work in the field of paleoecology. It’s hypothesized that geologic forces prompted climate changes, and subsequent changes in fauna, flora and ecology, that led to the evolution of new hominid species, up to and including our own modern human ancestors.

The East African Rift is one of the few regions of the world where continental plates are being torn apart, in this case tearing East Africa away from the main African continental land mass. It’s those same tectonic forces that also make the region a potential “hotspot” for geothermal power, a local source of clean, long-lived baseload electricity that could be a keystone for efforts to develop sustainable, low carbon societies in the region.

Massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas and polluting emissions could be avoided if geothermal power plants were developed instead of oil or coal-fired ones, benefits that would extend to human and ecological health and welfare of all life in the region as well as mitigating global warming.

Geothermal Hot Zones
Earlier this month, GWIR reported on Nevada-based Ormat Technologies and Kenya Power & Lighting’s successful efforts to tap into those forces by building the Olkaria III geothermal power plant. They’re not the only ones interested and working to realize some of this potential.

The Global Environment Facility Council in 2006 approved the Africa Rift Valley Geothermal Development Facility. Along with the United Nations Environment Program and the World Bank, the Facility underwrites the risks of drilling in a roughly north-south arc of East Africa that spans Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda and Tanzania.

On December 10 at the UN climate change conference in Poznan, UNEP and the GEF announced the completion of their Joint Geophysical Imaging project in Kenya, a $1 million effort to test new seismic and drilling techniques that might be used to tap steam from hot rock in the earth’s crust.

Project results exceeded expectations. They demonstrated that developing geothermal power plants in the region is both technologically feasible and cost-effective. Wells of steam capable of generating as much as 4-5 megawatts of electricity were found, one capable of generating 8 MW, enough to power some 5,700 homes, according to the project partners.

An international effort to expand on this work and develop geothermal resources in the Rift Valley region is now moving forward as a result. “There are least 4,000MW of electricity ready for harvesting along the Rift,” UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP executive director Achim Steiner, noted in a media release.

“It is time to take this technology off the back burner in order to power livelihoods, fuel development and reduce dependence on polluting and unpredictable fossil fuels. From the place where human-kind took its first faltering steps is emerging one of the answers to its continued survival on this planet…

“Combating climate change while simultaneously getting energy to the two billion people without access to it are among the central challenges of this generation. Geothermal is 100 per cent indigenous, environmentally-friendly and a technology that has been under-utilized for too long.”

Funded by the GEF and along with UNEP and Kenyan power company KenGen the program may also spark similar efforts in other countries and regions sitting atop particularly attractive geothermal hotspots, including but by no means limited to countries in Central America, such as Guatemala, as well as South Pacific island nations, such as Papua New Guinea.

Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger
A product of the New York City public school system, Andrew Burger went on to study geology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, work in the wholesale money and capital markets for a major Japanese bank and earn an MBA in finance.

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  1. Geothermal hot zones are not common, and won’t play a major role in providing alternative energy, but they should be exploited whenever possible, and to their fullest. Let’ stop trying to hit the home run, and focus on hitting a lot of singles in our sustainable energy future.


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