Use of costly thermal power to go down as geothermal energy grows

Olkaria IV geothermal power station. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Energy is the engine for production of goods and a key enabler across all economic sectors: Agriculture, mining, manufacturing, transportation, commerce, and public administration among others. It is a vital ingredient for socio-economic development and provision of basic services such as food, health and shelter.

Over the last two decades, Kenya has made significant progress in the development of power supply infrastructure, speeding up electricity connectivity and access and becoming a pacesetter in the region. Reaching this level required sustained investment in power generation, transmission distribution and mini-grid projects, fostered through strategic partnerships with development partners, public and private sector players.

From 1963 to 2002, Kenya heavily relied on and developed power generation from the hydros namely the 7-forks Dam Cascades, Turkwel Power Station, Sondu Miriu and Gogo which generates 2.5 MW and will be due for uprating to 8.6 MW in the next 24 months. This follows a directive by President William Ruto during his visit to Migori County in March this Year. In the '90s, the country faced power rationing due to drought, thus resorting to the development of expensive emergency thermal power generation as a mitigation measure. This was mainly the easiest technology to deploy compared to other existing technologies at the time.

The effects of the above led to the private sector being engaged to bridge the power generation gap; as well as unbundling Kenya Power and Lighting Company to bring Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) PLC whose core mandate is to generate power. At the time, the private sector brought in the much-needed capital investment for generation capacity to complement what KenGen was producing.

Other than the new capacity, the country also needed to diversify energy generation mix and mitigate overdependence on hydropower, which by its very nature is vulnerable to vagaries of weather and climate change. During this period, the thermal power plants provided a stop-gap measure. The decision by the government to scale up geothermal exploration was the game changer. This led to creation of Geothermal Development Company (GDC) whose sole mandate is to support the de-risking of geothermal fields and drilling steam production wells.

Gradual expansion of power generation over the years has grown the total installed capacity to 3,322MW, compared to 1,048MW in 2000. For the areas not connected to the national grid, the government is working with development partners to install off-grid mini-grids to serve them. Below is the aggregate figures of installed capacity and supporting technology.

KenGen owns and operates three thermal power plants namely, Kipevu Diesel Power I producing (73.5MW), Kipevu Diesel Power III (120MW) and Muhoroni Gas Turbines (60.0MW). Other Independent Power Producers (IPP) are Iberafrica which produces (52.5MW), Rabai Power (90MW), Thika Power (87MW), Gulf Power (80.3MW) and Triumph Power (83MW). The Rabai Power at the coast, Thika Power in Mt Kenya region and Muhoroni GT in the western region are mainly operated to ensure power and voltage stability in those regions.

The Kenya Kwanza government aims to decommission the Muhoroni GT plant when either Narok-Bomet, Sondu-Awendo or Rongai-Keringet-Chemosit lines are completed. Two thermal plants have already been retired which are; Iberafrica providing 56.5MW, retired in 2019, and Tsavo providing 74MW, which was retired in January 2023. The Kipevu I Diesel Power is scheduled for decommissioning in June this year.

We have a strategy premised around improving our transmission network. Currently, some critical transmission lines and substations are either under construction or at advanced stage to start construction. Their completion will ensure we evacuate geothermal power from Olkaria to load centres at the coast region and western, therefore reducing use of thermal power. This will result to a drop in the cost of power.

The Nairobi metropolis of Thika, Murang'a, Juja, Ruiru, Matuu, Tala, Machakos and their environs has seen increased power demand. These areas are supplied from the 7 forks Dam and with the recent drought situation, we experienced low water levels in Tana River. This caused power instability in the cited areas and the government was forced to utilise the Thika Thermal Plant to fill the demand gap.

Plans are also underway to build a 400kv line from Gilgil-Thika-Malaa-Konza with accompanying substations to ensure the area can enjoy geothermal power from Ol Karia and warrant redundancy in power stability.

Geothermal is now the leading source of electricity in Kenya as it provides an average of 44 per cent of the energy generated annually. Over the last eight years, thermal power plants are averaging providing 7-10 per cent of energy. The completion of some transmission lines and substations especially at the coast, will further reduce use of thermal plants, leaving them for deployment during the peak time as initially envisioned. Substantial increase in generation capacity from both KenGen and the IPPs in the last decade has greatly supported the diversification of Kenya's energy generation mix.

Kenya experienced the worst drought in 50 years, with failure of rains in the last three consecutive years. During this period, all supportive measures were applied to keep the lights on and no emergency power was procured. Investment in other renewable energy sources - mainly geothermal, solar, wind contributed to the stability of the country's energy mix and no severe power shortages and load-shedding was reported.

The use of solar and wind though intermittent, enabled gradual conservation of water in the reservoirs and therefore stretched out the period of usage. Two major wind power plants also complemented the peaking capacity from thermal and hydro though a lot more remains to be done to enhance power supply security in the country.