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Geothermal landscapes – powering Kenya’s future

This video essay explores the technological, political and social issues that surround Kenya’s growing use of geothermal power. The video is part of SEI’s work in an international research project that analyses the risks countries face as they seek to make a transition to lower-carbon energy sources.

Oliver Johnson / Published on 31 May 2018

In early February 2018, a group of us left our homes in Nairobi before dawn, for the first of three trips to the stunningly beautiful region of Kenya called Olkaria. As the sun rose, we arrived at the entrance to Hell’s Gate National Park, a protected area within Olkaria where wildlife freely roam, and where, around the park’s fringes, steam rises from geothermal power facilities that have become major players in Kenya’s economy.

As part of our research into how Kenya can achieve its economic development goals and, at the same time, achieve the pledges it has made to help meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, I wanted to create a complement to our written academic and policy work. I was looking for a visual representation of geothermal power development and its challenges. I wanted something that might adequately capture the beauty of the natural landscape, give a sense of the tremendous technological infrastructure unseen by most Kenyans, and feature the people who work and live within these natural and industrial contexts.

This was the inspiration for the video, “Geothermal landscapes – powering Kenya’s future”.

Video: SEI / YouTube

SEI is conducting research on how Kenya has managed to foster geothermal power, which now generates almost half of the country’s electricity. This research analyses what risks and uncertainties must be addressed to continue its development. In doing this analysis, we hope to draw lessons for other countries seeking to develop nascent low-carbon energy resources.

This research is part of a wider EU-funded project, Transitions Pathways and Risk Analysis for Climate Change Mitigation and Adaption Strategies (TRANSrisk), which aims to better understand policy-related risks that can inform robust policy design as nations in various stages of development strive to make a transition to less-polluting, sustainable energy sources.

Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya has high development ambitions, aiming to become a middle-income country by 2030. These development ambitions depend on the rapid expansion of the energy sector. Geothermal power sources are poised to play an important role in this expansion, particularly because Kenya aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 compared to business-as-usual as part of its commitment to the Paris Agreement.

In Olkaria, the Kenya Electricity Generating Company, KenGen, took us on a day-long tour to see the vast and impressive geothermal development there. Among the sites: Drilling equipment that can drill wells that reach kilometres underground. Deafening venting of steam at the wellhead underway to test its quality. Steam-gathering systems designed with sections tall enough to allow giraffes to freely walk under them. Giant power plants with the latest steam-turbine technology requiring only four staff to run it. The hot springs that KenGen has developed as a tourist attraction.

During the second trip, my colleagues visited the local community that have been relocated due to the ongoing development of the Olkaria IV power plant. Coincidentally, World Bank officials were visiting at the same time in response to concerns around some new compensation claims. This official visit caused quite a stir in the community, leaving little opportunity to for my colleagues to sit down and talk with people. So, they returned a few weeks later, when things were quieter, to talk with elders about how geothermal development in Olkaria has affected their lives. The elders highlighted positive changes related to land ownership, upgraded housing and community facilities, but they also pointed out negative impacts related to the loss of ancestral lands and the distances needed to travel to graze their livestock.

For background music we used an ambient track entitled “Ruminating”, which I composed and produced. Meanwhile, my wife, Helen Kinuthia, whom I first met on a hiking trip in Hell’s Gate National Park some years ago, kindly agreed to narrate the piece.

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