/ 18 November 2011

Alternative energy blossoms

Along the gentle slopes of the Rift Valley, at the foot of green hills dotted with drilling rigs, the Oserian flower farm on Lake Naivasha is tapping into geothermal deposits formed 40-million years ago.

“You have to be able to water your flowers every day,” said Bruce Knight, the farm’s mechanical engineer, who looks after 240 hectares of greenhouses that produce more than one million stems a day.

“If you go one or two days without it, you get to a situation where you lose the plant. And because pumping of water depends on power, it is a major issue. That’s why we started using geothermal [energy].”

Plagued by unexpected power outages, Oserian turned to geothermal energy almost a decade ago. It powers the entire farm, sterilises the water and provides cheap, free CO² for the greenhouses.

And it could soon begin powering much of Kenya, which depends heavily on hydroelectric power. About 44% of the 1.1 gigawatt the country uses annually comes from dams across the country. But a lack of water because of successive droughts has drastically reduced operations, causing frequent but irregular power cuts and forcing the state electricity company to turn to oil. This, in turn, has pushed electricity prices and inflation higher.

The electricity bill for Kenyan ­manufacturers has increased more than 50% since January, according to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers. The cost of commercial electricity went up from 10.75 to 16 Kenyan shillings (from about 90c to R1.35) per kilowatt hour over the period and many manufacturers have turned to expensive diesel generators.

Meanwhile, water levels at Masinga Dam, East Africa’s largest, are now at 50% and unlikely to improve for a month.

“We’ve had to turn to diesel generators, but they cost three times as much to operate,” said Janarvhanan Mrajaram, a factory manager at Thika Cloth Mills outside Nairobi, which produces 100 tonnes of fabric a month.

“Between this and the rising cost of oil, we don’t have the space to breathe.”

Kenya, like many countries in Africa, faces an energy gap. But a new generation of energy projects, such as the one at Oserian, are aimed at filling it.

With the financial crisis dragging down growth in the electricity industries in Europe and the United States, renewable energy-focused companies from Japan to Ireland are investing in the business in Africa, building new solar plants in the Sahara, wind farms in South Africa and geothermal plants in Kenya.

The 0.3-gigawatt (GW) Tekezé Dam in Ethiopia, Africa’s tallest concrete-arch dam, began operation in 2009. A 250-kilowatt (KW) system outside Kigali in Rwanda is the largest grid-connected solar system in sub-Saharan Africa, and a 0.3GW project is now under construction in Kenya. Wind projects are at advanced stages in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Last week the Democratic Republic of Congo signed a deal to kick-start a $10-billion, 5GW hydro-power project on the Congo River that has the potential to power much of sub-Saharan Africa, if expanded.

“Renewable energies are not only environmentally friendly but they are also cost-efficient,” said Christine Lins, head of the Renewable Energy Policy Network in Paris. “So it is not surprising that we have seen such a burst in investment.”

Lins said $5-billion was invested in 2010, up from $1.5-billion in 2007. “But when you consider that China invested $50-billion last year, we are still at the starting point.”

With Africa’s population set to double by 2050, entrepreneurs have become more keen to tap into a market in which the majority of people are still not connected to the grid.

“The market potential is huge,” said Khilna Dodhia, chief executive of the Kenya-based wind-energy company Kenergy. A former engineer and procurement manager with Airtricity in Ireland, she moved to Kenya last year to establish a business that could tap into Kenya’s ­rising demand for electricity.

“About 85% of a population of 39-million people have no access to electricity. The population of Kenya is projected to grow at a rate of about 2.5%, which means what we have here is a large existing market with strong growth projections.”

At present Kenya only has 1.4GW installed capacity for electricity generation, Dodhia said, but by 2030 this was forecast to grow to 19.2GW, a fourteen fold increase in ­generation capacity.

“We find this exciting because out of this 19.2GW, just more than 2GW is forecast to come from wind generation. For a start-up company such as ours, this is a sufficient market size in which to set our footprint for expansion into sub-Saharan Africa.”

It is a long-term vision. But with aspirations to become a mid-income economy under the Kenyan government’s so-called Vision 2030 plan, that was what was needed, said Dodhia, if the country was to generate an expected 10GW in two years’ time.

“Wind can be a major part of the solution to Kenya’s power problems because of its low cost over the long term,” said Dodhia. “With wind and hydro on its network, Kenya would be able to hedge its electricity prices against future rises in fuel costs.”