Kenya Takes Leap of Faith in Renewable Power
As the world faces a climate emergency of unprecedented proportions, and with global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) falling nowhere near fast enough to avoid massive harm from global warming, there has been a rallying call for countries to do everything in their power to take urgent action to decarbonise their economies.
One of the ways through which the world seeks to do this is through a transition to low-carbon energy sources. The electricity sector is in the thick of this major transformation.
Kenya, in its updated Nationally, Determined Contributions (NDCs) — a set of efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change as per the 2015 Paris Agreement to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century, has come up with ambitious policies and measures to pursue its low emission climate-resilient development pathway in the realisation of Vision 2030.
It aims to abate greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030 relative to the Business as Usual scenario of 143 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent with emission reduction potential from the energy sector of 48 million carbon dioxide equivalent, 9.32 million carbon dioxide equivalent of which will be in its power generation.
It is estimated that 35 percent of global emissions come from power production, making it the largest single source of global greenhouse gas emissions. Energy-related carbon emissions grew 1.7 percent in 2018 to reach a historic high of 33.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
In Kenya, in line with its ambitions, President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2018 committed to attaining 100 percent green energy sufficiency by 2022. That might not happen, but the country is seen as a pacesetter in terms of attaining renewable energy, particularly in Africa. It has the largest wind farm on the continent and is among leaders in the exploitation of geothermal energy.
According to secretary for renewable energy at the Ministry of Energy, Isaac Kiva, 75.65 percent of the installed electricity in Kenya is from renewable or clean sources, with the majority coming from hydroelectricity and geothermal power as of June 2021.
Kenya still has 24.35 percent of its installed electricity from non-renewable sources, including gas turbine thermal plants and diesel thermal power plants. However, in terms of electricity dispatched to the grid, renewable energy accounts for more than 95 percent on average, as thermal power is normally used during peak demand periods.
From 2004 to 2011, increases in electricity supply generally came from fossil fuels and geothermal. Geothermal now shows the greatest proportional increase in installed capacity.
According to the Ministry of Energy data, the three clean energy sources with the biggest national growth are geothermal — which is expanding faster than all other renewables combined — wind and solar power.
In recent years rapidly expanding geothermal — contributing 28.38percent — has overtaken hydropower generation at 28.28 percent to become the most significant source as the country focuses on increasing geothermal capacity and weaning off thermal sources.
Assessments of geothermal hotspots indicate an estimated potential of about 10,000 megawatts in the Rift Valley region.
With nearly 25 percent of Kenyans still lacking access to electricity, which stands in the way of development efforts, Kenya has trained its sights on harnessing this geothermal potential to achieve a significant share of its domestic energy demand. By 2030, the government intends to tap into this rich geothermal potential, to drastically increase power generation.
The strategy for increasing renewable energy in Kenya to meet this demand highlights wind, solar, small hydro, biomass and geothermal as key sources, with geothermal development being the most prominently pursued.
“Geothermal is our least-cost option of baseload power and can be used at high load factor. We also have sizable potential, as well as great experience in its exploitation,” said Mr Kiva.
“The government will thus continue to aggressively develop geothermal energy resources due to its numerous advantages over other sources of power. I mean, unlike hydro it is not affected by drought and climatic variability; it has the highest availability at over 95 percent, meaning relatively no intermittence, it is indigenous and readily available in Kenya, unlike thermal energy that relies on imported fuel, making it the most suitable source for baseload electricity generation in the country,” he explained.
As per the statistics, wind generation is playing catch-up with a contribution of 14.88 percent while solar, which has over the years gained popularity as an off-grid source for far-flung consumers and industries, contributes 3.23 percent to the national grid.
According to data collected by the ministry, about 1.2 million quality-verified solar home systems bigger than 11 watts have been sold by solar providers over the last five years. “But we know there could be many others that are operational but are not captured in our systems,” said Mr Kiva.
With Kenya estimated to have a wind power potential of 3,000 megawatts, but a current installed capacity of only 435 megawatts from three wind farms, this too could be a significant growth area. The Lake Turkana Wind Power plant, located in Marsabit, at 310 megawatts generation capacity, is the single largest wind plant in Africa. Kipeto wind power plant in Kajiado with a 100-megawatt generation capacity is the second biggest. Ngong wind farm, by Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) with a capacity of 25.5 megawatts is the third. KenGen’s 80 megawatts wind project in Meru has been put on hold due to permit and land rights issues. Another renewable source of energy, biomass, has been reducing, with its share having dropped from 1.33 percent in March 2013 to 0.07 percent in June 2021.
According to Mr Kiva, strategies to enhance renewable energy include improved governmental policy support to pave the way for continued growth.
“Several instruments have been put in place to encourage and facilitate private sector participation in clean power generation, including the feed-in tariffs policy, renewable energy auction (under formulation) also known as demand auctions or “procurement auctions, whereby the government issues a call for tenders to install a certain capacity of renewable energy-based electricity, the provision of Government Letter of Support as may be necessary for a particular project,” he said.
“And for far-flung areas, to utilise decentralised renewable energy solutions for off-grid electrification, mainly mini-grids and solar home systems.”
He said the Energy ministry was conducting a resource assessment to establish an atlas for renewable energy for wind, solar and small hydro-power that will provide maps of renewable energy resources across the country, for any investors who would want to develop clean energy.
Kenya has catalysed a productive geothermal sector by establishing a specialist Sate agency — the Geothermal Development Company, which shoulders some of the financial risks for the private sector at exploration, appraisal and drilling stages.
Mr Kiva explains, “this is aimed at de-risking geothermal exploration”.
Further, he says, because renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are typically geographically dispersed, and some of the areas of highest wind energy potential are not close to population centres with high energy demand, the government has been enhancing the transmission framework and facilities to evacuate power and transmit to load centres, as well as strengthening the grid for more integration of renewable energy.
Increasing funding for transmission infrastructure has been one of Kenya’s important enabling investments to support renewable energy deployment.
Addressing climate change and protecting communities from its effects will involve changing what infrastructures, where and how they get built. Climate change presents an urgent crisis to Kenya and the rest of the world.
In the last decade, extreme weather events such as wild forest fires, floods and droughts have ravaged parts of the country with disastrous outcomes.
Floods inundate large parts of arable land destroying crops, causing loss of life through landslides, killing livestock and damaging property and infrastructure over vast areas. Droughts, on the other hand, cause a decline in water levels affecting agricultural activities, causing food insecurity and famine, especially in the arid and semi-arid lands of Kenya. Yet, according to scientists, the effects of climate change have made many of these events more severe.
Paradoxically, the climate vulnerability of electricity production such as droughts that have long affected hydro capacity, as well as the volatility of oil prices for thermal generation, provide further incentives to expand renewable energy sources.
With the country increasingly able to access previously unattainable funding sources by aligning more with clean energy and climate change as well as development objectives, carbon and climate finance, donor funding and local public finance have opened up.
Kenya with its newly revised Energy Policy 2018 and National Action Plan on Climate Change — a Vision 2030 Strategy — has largely adopted policies to accelerate the acquisition of clean and renewable energy solutions but is still a country at a critical crossroads in defining its energy future.
Scant financing, a just transition to a lower-carbon economy that delivers poverty reduction and climate resilience all at the same time presents a niggling balancing act.
“High upfront cost for capital development is one of the major issues facing Kenya’s green energy ambition. To work around this, the government has instituted tax waivers for equipment for power generation from renewable energy sources,” he said of some of the challenges the country is facing with the new pursuits.
“Also, the intermittencies of renewable energy sources from sources of wind and solar is another snag– but Ministry of Energy, through the support of German Government is undertaking a project to strengthen and prepare the grid for more integration of variable renewable sources, looking at planning, operation, system control, among others,” he said.
However, even with the deployment of renewable energy technologies have progressed apace as one of the pathways to maximize greenhouse gas emissions reduction, Kenya still harbours plans to proceed with a 1,050 megawatts coal-fired power project that has previously caused uproar amongst environmental activists. It has been condemned as reneging the pursuit of climate compatible energy developments in Kenya.
Also, the apparent win-win for climate and development is happening against the backdrop of much-publicised oil and gas discoveries that may slacken the 100 percent renewable energy vision within the next nine years.