Field of steam: How Kenya has become a geothermal superpower

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africas energy surge kenya geothermal_00013101

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Story highlights

  • Geothermal is becoming the most popular power source in Kenya
  • Massive expansion plans underway outside Nairobi

(CNN)Kenya is a global superpower of the flower trade, and Oserian, one of the largest fair-trade flower farms in the country, is a major reason why.

The company's 200-hectare site on Lake Naivasha produces 700,000 flowers each day, which are exported across the world.
Oserian is also leading change in the country's energy sector, by running its operation largely on geothermal power. The company pipes steam from the ground to heat a water recirculation system that maintains its mighty greenhouses.
    "Before we had the geothermal power we had to have a lot of backup generators and we were using a lot of diesel," says Alasdair Keith, Engineering Manager of the Oserian Development Company. "Our electrical savings are probably $750,000 a year compared to before."
    Until recently, Kenya has largely relied on hydroelectric power, which has proved fallible under strain such as during drought.
    Looking underground could provide a more reliable alternative.

    Field of steam

    The Olkaria field just outside Nairobi is the nation's largest geothermal operation. The site is estimated to contain 1,000 megawatts of power that could supply much of the Kenyan population's needs.
    Energy prospectors are racing to exploit this lucrative resource.
    "We have a program to drill as many wells as we can," says geologist Victor Otieno. "There are still areas within the geothermal field which have not been fully explored."
    The initial drilling process is costly at around $6 million per well, but leading figures of the industry believe the returns justify the outlay.
    "With geothermal, once you develop it, it's there for you all the time," says Albert Mugo, CEO of the KenGen company. "Geothermal is very capital intensive because you have to drill the wells to get the fuel -- the steam. But once you connect the wells to the power plant then you are ok. It's a very small cost in terms of running."

    New era

    Over the past 15 years, Kenya's geothermal output has rapidly increased: from 45 to 533 megawatts according to KenGen figures.
    This accounts for around half of the power on the National Grid, and the proportion continues to increase. A fifth major power plant is being added to the Olkaria field at a cost of $408 million, through a loan from Japan, which will be fully operational by 2018.
    Mugo expects the additional power will be a major boost for business in Kenya, and also to attract new business by consigning the country's energy struggles to the past.
    "We do not want to turn away any investor who wants to come to Kenya because there is not enough electricity," he says. "We would rather have excess, which in any case will be there for a short time...and (to) ensure that anyone coming to set base in Kenya can be assured of getting enough electricity."