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Powering up Africa

Rebecca Post's picture

Breaking news! The OrPower4 Project has been awarded:
African Renewables Deal of the Year 2009 from Project Finance Magazine.

After a long journey to Nairobi, in the midst of a much-needed shower, the room went black. Fortunately the lights came on a few seconds later. My good fortune was only due to the fact that the hotel’s generator kicked in – with its attendant high cost and environmental and safety hazards. 

I’m no stranger to the power outages that present themselves nearly every evening in this part of the world, but it’s one thing to experience a minor inconvenience, quite another for the business that is losing money due to power outages, the student who is losing out on opportunities because she can’t study at night, or the doctor trying to treat a victim of a late-night road accident. And these are the lucky ones. Only 15 percent of all Kenyans have any access to electricity.


Power generation is one challenge. Kenya has ambitious plans to extract its indigenous and climate-friendly geothermal resources and to tap into wind potential. During my stay, I visited the Olkaria geothermal fields in Kenya’s rift valley where the MIGA-supported OrPower 4 project is operating and supplying 48 megawatts to the grid. The country is currently generating 129 megawatts of geothermal power but it’s estimated that there is potential to produce 2000 megawatts.


But you can’t neglect the distribution side of the energy equation, and this is an area where countries face enormous challenges. According to an official at the Kenya Power and Lighting Company, vandalism is the most significant challenge the utility is facing right now.  The “hot” item is the oil sitting in the transformers. Although its retail value is less than two dollars, thieves regularly extract the oil and use it for everything from treating burns to making welding sets.

The bottom line is that vast amounts of private and public investment are needed to increase generation and improve transmission infrastructure – along with anti-theft legislation and other measures. Even with these limitations, Kenya has been posting strong and steady growth over the past several years – and with more reliable power those numbers can only improve.


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