The Washington Post
Desert will be site of major project to help boost energy supplies
Kenya built its first wind farm, above,
outside Nairobi. In January,
construction will begin on
a $760 million wind farm
in the Chalbi Desert.
By Christopher Vourlias
NAIROBI -- Kenya's Chalbi Desert is
a bleak, forbidding stretch of coarse sand
and ash-gray ridges broken by
clusters of tiny huts. It is also one
of the windiest places on Earth,
experts say, and it soon will be
the site of Africa's largest wind farm.
In January, a consortium of Dutch
and Kenyan investors will begin
construction on the $760 million project,
which envisions more than
350 wind turbines towering over
desert expanses near Lake Turkana
in northern Kenya. When completed
in 2012, the wind farm is expected
to boost the power supply in
this nation by almost 30 percent.
Kenya is one of the continent's greenest
countries, with nearly three-quarters
of its power coming from hydroelectric
and geothermal sources. But its efforts
to harness the wind have put it at
the forefront of a budding movement
in Africa, ahead of a global climate
change conference in Copenhagen next month.
Ethiopia inked a $300 million deal last year
with the French company Vergnet
to build a wind farm. Tanzania is
constructing two facilities that will
boost its power supply by nearly
10 percent. And South Africa,
the continent's largest economy,
hopes to complete 18 wind farms by 2014.
Kenya's first wind farm, in the
Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, began
feeding into the national grid in August.
Additional sites are being scouted
near Lake Naivasha, a popular tourist
retreat northwest of Nairobi, and in
the blustery northeast near Ethiopia.
"What you see in Africa is
a severe shortage" of power,
said Phylip Leferink, sales and
marketing manager for Vestas,
the world's leading supplier
of wind turbines. "They have an urgent
need for bringing up the capacity
as soon as possible."
Power shortages have forced
blackouts from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,
to Johannesburg this year, but
the shortages have been especially
acute in Kenya. A prolonged drought
has dried up riverbeds and crippled
the country's hydroelectric plants.
Officials have imported fossil fuels
as an emergency stopgap, raising
concerns among environmentalists.
Energy prices have soared.
The effects have been felt from
the industrial centers to the
sprawling shantytowns and
the suburbs of the capital.
Rationing has brought rolling
blackouts to Nairobi, and manufacturers
have been forced to scale down
production because of power cuts.
In the aftermath of last year's
post-election violence, the power
shortages have been a further burden
for a country struggling
to regain its footing as
East Africa's economic powerhouse.
"We are paying for the sins
of our leaders," said Geoffrey Machariah,
a taxi driver, who endures frequent
power cuts in his Nairobi home.
"Since last year, we are all suffering."
The Turkana project is this country's
most ambitious energy venture to date.
The site encompasses 25,000 acres
on the edge of the Chalbi Desert,
an area chosen for the "natural,
low-level jet stream" blowing south
from the Sahara and the
Ethiopian highlands, said Nick Taylor,
chief operating officer of
the Lake Turkana Wind Power consortium.
It is part of a broader initiative
to introduce nearly 500 megawatts
of wind power within five years.
Leferink, the Vestas marketing manager,
estimated that the Ngong Hills project
took two years to complete, whereas
"more traditional generating methods,
like coal-fired power plants,
need a long lead time to be realized."
However, the technology required
to build large-scale wind farms
involves substantial investment.
In addition to its on-site costs,
the Turkana consortium invested
in extensive road upgrades
to transport equipment from Nairobi
to the site, Taylor said.
But Hermann Oelsner, president
of the African Wind Energy Association,
said the long-term benefits outweigh
the short-term costs. "In the beginning
the cost appears high, but if you
calculate the electricity costs over
the whole lifetime of a project,
then it is cheaper than fossil fuels."
Sub-Saharan Africa still lags far
behind the developed world as
a source of wind power. But the prospects
south of the Sahara are improving,
in part because of access to better
and cheaper technologies,
and because of growing uncertainty,
in the face of climate change,
that traditional energy sources
will be sufficient to meet growing demand.
As governments turn to newer
technologies to shore up
their energy supplies, Oelsner and others
say wind will play an increasingly vital role.
"Wind will be a big part of the
energy mix . . . as we run out
of fossil fuels," he said.
"But we must start now."
Vourlias is a freelance journalist
based in East Africa.