Six hundred kilometres from Nairobi in a vast wilderness of mountains, plains and valleys lies one of Kenya’s largest private-public partnerships.
For decades, the area surrounding the over Sh70 billion Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) project in Marsabit County - which is currently Africa’s biggest wind farm that generates 310MW of electricity - has wallowed in neglect.
The harsh climate has condemned nomadic communities to poverty and conflict over livestock and resources, such as water and grazing land.
However, the mighty winds in the area that hit speeds of up to 20 metres per second have opened up the marginalised region to a life of possibilities.
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LTWP lies in Sarima, between the foothills of Mt Kulal and the southeastern end of Lake Turkana.
Ethnic groups such as the Samburu, Rendille, Turkana and El Molo are found here.
Air of expectation
An air of expectation hangs around the area; yet, the needs are many, including water, education and health facilities.
Until about four years ago, it would take almost three days to drive from Nairobi to Sarima. But this has been cut to a day following infrastructural developments brought on by the wind farm, as well as the national and county governments.
Winds for Change (WoC) Head Peter Ng’ang’a said even before the project fully began operations in 2018, local communities had piled pressure on LTWP for development.
WoC conducts community development projects in the area. Ng’ang’a said LTWP committed to investing a portion of its operating revenue to improving the communities’ livelihoods.
“As soon as materials came in, there was pressure from communities. We had to act and look for funds three years prior,” he said.
This has seen them engage in the construction of facilities, such as a school, dispensaries and the drilling of boreholes.
At the slopes of Mt Kulal, some residents are being trained on beekeeping by the government’s National Beekeeping Institute in a bid to diversify livelihoods as most of the locals depend on livestock.
Already, about 11 developmental projects are lined up for 2021, said Ng’ang’a.
“The needs are more than we can provide for at the moment, so we are continually looking for donors and other partners,” he said.
The key challenge in the area is that the communities are scattered owing to their nomadic lifestyles. Livestock raids had also been an issue.
LTWP has employed community liaison officers from the various ethnic groups who live and interact with the local communities and act as an information bridge. They also help the company manage community expectations.
The wind project has also employed several locals. According to the LTWP 2019 sustainability performance report, it had employed 338 workers, with 96 per cent coming from Marsabit County, three per cent from the rest of Kenya and one per cent being expatriates.
“We live so far away from the rest but ‘our winds’ have become our greatest asset and development has come,” said Esther Leisiantam, a resident of Gatab, one of the villages surrounding the wind farm.
She said insecurity, mostly livestock banditry, has gone down since the project came up.
Another major expectation is access to electricity, with the majority of the residents unable to enjoy their ‘goldmine’.
“We really urge the national government and stakeholders involved to give us power,” said Stephen Ogom, a teacher at a local secondary school.
Acknowledging the communities’ concern, LTWP Deputy Chief Technical Officer Wellington Otieno said their hands are tied, as that mandate lies with State electricity distributor, Kenya Power.
“Our work is only to generate power; only Kenya Power can supply,” he said.
The wind farm also consists of a high voltage sub-station connected to the national grid through a transmission line built by the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (Ketraco).
LTWP is in a power purchase agreement with Kenya Power for the next 20 years at lower tariffs than other energy sources in the country.
“Over time, this will help lower overall tariffs to the consumer in addition to us providing clean and reliable energy,” LWTP said in its annual sustainability report.
According to the report, since connection to the national grid in September 2018, the wind farm had injected over 1.8 billion kilowatt-hours of clean, renewable energy as at December 2019.
On the project’s performance, Otieno said it has operated optimally since the start, adding that it has a capacity factor of 60 per cent. This is above the average capacity factor for most wind farms, which range between 30 per cent and 40 per cent.
On the environmental impact, he said LTWP reduced the non-renewable energy mix in the national grid by 11 per cent in 2019 and is set to hit this again in 2020.
“Over 70 per cent of Kenya’s energy mix is renewable. That’s where the future is,” Otieno said.
Kenya has been shifting its focus to clean energy, with investments in renewable energy estimated at Sh145 billion, according to a United Nations Environmental Programme report.
Electricity generation is responsible for widespread greenhouse gas emissions owing to heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
LTWP’s sustainability reports say since connection to the national grid, it has offset 0.7 million tonnes of carbon emissions.
This is expected to earn the government revenue.
“This reduction will eventually result in a cash payment to the government of Kenya through the sale of carbon credits,” the report says.