Not Far from Oil Country, Geology and Global Markets are Defining Africa’s Future

Growing international interest in the East African Rift Valley System’s geothermal resources reflects an indicated desire from certain African government and company counterparts to access state-of-the-art materials and training in order to best develop potential geothermal resources within “one of the geologic wonders of the world.”

EAGP instructors and KenGen trainees at the Menengai geothermal field, Kenya.

Not far from Oil Country, Geology and Global Markets are Defining Africa’s Future
By Leslie Blodgett, GEA staff editor — Kenya’s first geothermal facility opened at the Olkaria site in 1981; Ethiopia now has operative facilities as well; and in the last year or so, progress in geothermal development activities have been reported in Djibouti, Eritrea, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.  Growing international interest in the East African Rift Valley System’s geothermal resources reflects an indicated desire from certain African government and company counterparts to access state-of-the-art materials and training in order to best develop potential geothermal resources within “one of the geologic wonders of the world.”[1]

A relationship between U.S. and African parties is maturing, particularly in Kenya and Ethiopia.  In those two countries, geothermal power operation has already been successful, a factor revealing promising potential for continued growth.  Steve Hirsch, who has worked closely with many of East Africa’s geothermal sectors — most recently through the East Africa Geothermal Partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) – said recently: “Our program was initially a response to the Kenyans who said the U.S. was a leading developer and generator of geothermal power in the world, and had the greatest number of private geothermal companies and the latest technologies.  As a result we’ve proved, I think, the credibility of the program but more than that the interest of U.S. companies to participate, learn more, and become familiar with the landscape in East Africa.”

The GEA released an updated report on the international geothermal market in September 2013 along with a list of current projects worldwide.[2]  A total 57 current projects were listed in the countries noted above.  Kenya continues to lead the way regionally.  “Right now 296 MW of the over ~1,000 MW of geothermal under development in Kenya are physically under construction,” GEA noted in a release accompanying the report.  “If all projects are completed on time Kenya will lead the world with substantial additions to their geothermal infrastructure over the next decade and become a center of geothermal technology on the African continent.”

Over the summer, major milestones were accomplished elsewhere in the region.  Rwanda’s government began its first drilling for geothermal energy at the Mount Karisimbi site on July 18.  The project will also serve for on-site education for Energy, Water and Sanitation Authority of Rwanda employees attending training by Iceland GeoSurvey scientists.  Zambia’s first well commenced drilling on August 12 at Kafue basin, with results expected in December.

The report from GEA as well as other parties’ observations have concluded that some of Africa’s most frustrating infrastructural problems could be solved by employing its heavy natural geothermal resources, although some of the same issues – the lowest access to power per capita in the world; deforestation and health problems from use of traditional biomass; and unreliability of hydropower due to climactic fluctuations  – have at the same time contributed to a slowed rate of development as individual countries struggle to pinpoint the right combination of rules and business incentives.  In terms of policy support, several countries have goals for megawatt capacity growth in coming years. Kenya’s Vision 2030 targets 5,000 MW of geothermal power by 2030, while Ethiopia has a goal to add 450 MW online by 2019.  Rwanda hopes to bring 300 MW of geothermal power online by 2017; Tanzania wants to generate up to 140 MW by 2018.  Kenya and Uganda also both have tariffs for geothermal energy.

Agencies of the U.S. federal government are already deeply invested in Africa’s geothermal future.  In Kenya, USTDA aided the Geothermal Development Company in its infancy; the government-owned corporation now works aggressively in the sector, with a plan to drill about 100 wells in the next three years.  The EAGP partnership, launched in 2012 and implemented by the U.S. Energy Association, has had about 14 different companies involved in training sessions in Kenya, with seven courses under its belt as of early September.  Signed in January, a Memorandum of Understanding between USAID and the African Union Commission on the development of geothermal energy in East Africa signals further commitment.

The Power Africa initiative announced by President Obama on June 30 will leverage federal agency commitments totaling $7 billion in financial support over the next five years to support specific projects in clean technologies — geothermal, hydro, wind and solar energy — as well as oil and gas projects.  Craig O’Connor of Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM) and Brian O’Hanlon of Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) have said that Power Africa will be an important part of their efforts.   EXIM has committed to $3-5 billion to Power Africa, and OPIC to $1 billion.

“By and large the goal of the initiative is to increase private sector projects,” USAID’s John Garrison told GEA.  Symbion Power, the U.S. company that hosted the President’s Power Africa announcement at its Ubungo gas plant in Tanzania, has since signed a new agreement for geothermal power in Tanzania.  USAID will provide $285 million.

The U.S. certainly isn’t the only who has heard the call to develop the Rift Valley System.  The World Bank’s strong support of various geothermal projects there is an indication of the global interest in the region’s growth.  China, Germany, Iceland, and Japan are just some of the individual nations joining the challenge and competition via national initiatives and the work of private companies answering calls for drilling related assistance and other priorities.

But the direction of future geothermal development in Africa will of course depend largely on efforts within Africa.  The African Development Bank has been involved in funding various projects, and countries are actively involved in their own growth, such as the Development Bank of Ethiopia’s recent US$20 million commitment to geothermal drilling.  Within the East African group, Kenya has already establishing itself as a leader by offering successful models for its neighbors to follow, and is also set to begin sending geothermal energy training to Tanzania.  Kenya’s state-owned power producer KenGen has added geothermal consulting to their portfolio.  KenGen’s Senior operations manager Henry Wesula recently expressed support for geothermal’s role in industrializing Uganda.[3]

Key representatives of East African geothermal markets will be attending the GRC Annual Meeting and GEA Geothermal Energy Expo, September 29 through October 2, 2013.

[1] See “East Africa’s Great Rift Valley: A Complex Rift System,” (, by James Wood, Professor of Geology and Alex Guth, PhD candidate, Michigan Tech Michigan Technological University.

[2] See “2013 Geothermal Power: International Market Overview,” Geothermal Energy Association (, prepared by Ben Matek.

[3] See “Geothermal power: Kenya’s lesson to Uganda,” Daily Monitor (–Kenya-s-lesson-to-uganda/-/691232/1918180/-/10oo0ni/-/index.html), by Flavia Lanyero.

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