HELL’S GATE NATIONAL PARK, Kenya — Verdant hills stretch into the distance at Hell’s Gate National Park, where zebras, buffalos, antelopes, baboons and other wildlife roam an idyllic landscape of forests, gorges and grassy volcanoes near the shores of Lake Naivasha.
Snaking over the same landscape are pipes. Miles and miles of pipes — some high enough off the ground that trucks can pass underneath and giraffes won’t hit their heads — carry steam from beneath this volcanic valley to big power plants inside the park.
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The valley’s animal herders have long known the unusual properties of the ground under their feet. On chilly days, they warmed themselves near vents that emit plumes of hot steam. Now, Kenya is increasingly harnessing that steam to turn generators that can allow it to expand electrical service and power its rapidly growing economy.
The park, about 50 miles from the capital of Nairobi, sits over the East African Rift, a huge fracture in the earth’s crust that also cuts through Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and other countries. Steam from here helped generate 47 percent of Kenya’s electricity in 2015, with hydropower (nearly 35 percent) generating much of the rest.
Kenya has pushed hard to harness its geothermal capabilities. It generated 45 megawatts of power with geothermal energy in 1985 and now generates about 630 megawatts; nearly 400 megawatts of that production has come online since 2014.
“No matter how you cut it, that is a significant amount of generation in the geothermal world,” said Gene Suemnicht, chief executive of EGS, a California-based geothermal consultancy that has worked in Kenya.
That explosive growth has made geothermal power a promising source of renewable energy for a country of 44 million people that is expected to nearly double in population by 2050.
Much of Kenya lacks electricity; only 40 percent of its population has access to reliable service. Much of the African continent has even less: Only about 25 percent of Africans have access to reliable electricity. Although Africa is home to 16 percent of the world’s population, it consumes only 3.3 percent of global power production.
Reliable energy is a vital driver of economic growth. At Oserian, one of Kenya’s largest flower exporters based near Lake Naivasha, geothermal steam warms greenhouses and generates electricity at its two power plants.
Geothermal heating allows the company to sell 380 million flower stems each year and also grow “varieties of roses that would not be economically viable without 24-hour heating,” said Neil Hellings, managing director of Oserian. Savings from using geothermal energy versus conventional electricity lets Oserian pay its employees more than double that of many competitors, Mr. Hellings added.
Another geothermal field already under development north of Hell’s Gate was expected to bring power to 500,000 households and 300,000 small and medium-size businesses, according to the African Development Bank Group.
Other countries have used geothermal power to drive their economies. In the 1970s, geothermal development helped propel Iceland from poverty to a wealthy island nation.
The rise of Kenya’s geothermal industry — it ranks ninth in the world in geothermal energy production, according to the Geothermal Council Resource, an American industry association — has helped reduce electricity rates and expand access to electricity. The government has set an ambitious goal of universal access by 2020 — but many challenges make that a very high bar to reach.
Electrical transmission and distribution — and connecting customers who can pay for service — is crucial to a viable power business. In Kenya “the grid to transport the generated power to citizens also needs substantial investment,” said Victoria Cuming, head of policy at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Big efforts to expand Kenya’s grid are underway, with about 1,500 miles of new electrical lines under construction and 3,600 miles in the works by Kenya Electricity Transmission Company, or Ketraco. The main hurdle for grid expansion will be financing. “Kenya has typically relied on concessional investors or government funding,” Ms. Cuming said.
Sanjay Chandra, director of new energy development at ICF, a consultancy in the United States, noted that connecting homes or smaller businesses in the “last mile is always challenging.” This is especially so in poor areas where people may not be able to afford electricity or don’t use much, therefore making it relatively expensive — and financially unviable — for companies to connect them.
In western Kenya “the electrification rate is hovering around 5 percent even though 84 percent of unconnected households are within 200 meters of a connection point,” Mr. Chandra said.
Last year, Kenya’s demand for electricity exceeded 1,600 megawatts for the first time. Under ideal circumstances, the country has the potential to generate more than 10,000 megawatts of geothermal energy, according to Kenya Electricity Generating Company, or KenGen, which generates the majority of the country’s electricity.
Across all of East Africa, there’s potential for some 20,000 megawatts of geothermal energy, according to a report from agencies including the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa and the United Nations Environment Program.
But Kenya and the surrounding region face many challenges to harnessing its full geothermal potential. Lack of funding and technical expertise, poor governance, and corruption often hobble big infrastructure projects in developing countries.
And though geothermal is considered renewable energy, it does have pitfalls. While the Earth will most likely supply heat for millions of years, the underground water necessary to produce steam can be depleted if not recharged.