A quick exploration of geothermal energy in the African context

With technological advancement comes improvement in man’s effort to discover cleaner, renewable and sustainable energy. Although hydropower energy still maintains its position as the most used form of renewable power source in the world,. still other sources of clean energy such as solar, wind, tidal and geothermal energy are gaining more and more popularity. In this piece, we will consider the great energy potential that geothermal heat represents.

Geothermal energy is heat within the earth. This energy is renewable since the heat will continually be produced deep in the heart of the earth. It is a source of energy that many countries particularly in Africa are striving to tap into. Due to their location and temperature, countries in Africa are beginning to leverage geothermal heat to address their lack of energy access.

A vibrant source of energy

It has been established that geothermal comes from within the earth, it is recorded that the temperature of the earth’s core is about 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit, this is as hot as the surface of the sun.
In Africa, geothermal has been discovered in the geologically active area of the Great Rift Valley, this valley extends from Djibouti to Mozambique and it is known to have 30 active volcanoes and uncountable hot springs.

The plants that convert thermal energy into mechanical energy and then to electrical energy are binary plants, dry steam, and flash plants. Binary is the most common among these three as it can exploit low temperatures and do not release geothermal fluids or cause environmental hazards making them preferable.

Geothermal energy in the African context

Geothermal energy is a renewable source of energy that can supply sustainable power using a natural resource from Earth. This energy is generated and stored in the earth, it is then captured through hot water springs and reservoirs which are located near the surface. Heat derived from this hot water can be converted into electricity through what is called electromagnetic induction. This energy source does not depend on the weather to supply electricity thereby making it reliable and sustainable.

One report says that Kenya is currently the largest geothermal energy-producing country in Africa, having derived 40% of its power generation from geothermal heat. Also, the East African country has harnessed its geothermal energy capabilities which is generating an estimate of 630 MW with almost 400 MW of the production coming online since 2014.

Taking a cue from Kenya, Ethiopia is currently harnessing its geothermal potential with other African countries like Burundi, Zambia, and Uganda also operating small-scale geothermal plants.

The world is in dire need to protect the planet from climate change. To this end, international organizations continue to call for more use of renewable energy to stem the effects of climate change. Beyond being one of the various renewable energy options, geothermal energy is environmentally friendly, durable, and long-lasting due to the fact that it is not exposed to elements outside.

While the process of drilling and converting heat into electricity may be a costly undertaking, geothermal energy can help the energy demands of millions of people in Africa. More so, its use alongside other renewables can wean off Africa’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

Using geothermal energy to solve Africa’s power issue

In recent decades, there’s been much exploration into how renewable energy reduces pollution and enhances sustainability at the same time.

Using renewable energy puts countries in a good position to be self-sufficient and less dependent on costly imports.

Apart from hydro energy, you might be familiar with other forms of renewable energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy, among others.

All these are alternative forms of energy contributing to the sustainability of a clean, green world. However, unlike solar and wind energy, geothermal is peculiar in that it’s not subject to time of day and/or weather conditions.

Have you’ve ever experienced low energy output from your solar panel on a cloudy or rainy day? If so, that must have reminded you of just how important the sun is in generating electricity.

Conversely, no matter the time of day, geothermal energy remains stable. Simply put, geothermal energy is the heat from the earth. It is a clean, limitless form of renewable power that can drive sustainable electricity. How is it generated?

Consider this: On the earth’s outer layer are rock-like slabs called tectonic plates. When these move, they cause breaks in the earth’s crust that allow underground water to mix with super-heated rock, resulting in steam.

These narrow openings create pathways up to the earth’s surface, where they form hot springs, geysers, or steams. The heat from these is then converted into electricity through a process known as electromagnetic induction.

Geothermal energy: Is Africa ready?

Hydropower- the use of fast-moving water to produce electricity- is the commonest source of renewable energy in Africa. Unfortunately, recent climate change like drought has made hydropower generation an unpredictable exercise all over the continent.

Due to its unique location, temperatures, not to mention the need for stable electricity, Africa, is on a determined move to harness the power of geothermal.

To date, Kenya is taking the lead as Africa’s largest producer of geothermal energy. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, (IRENA), Kenya and its neighboring countries within the East African Rift region have a significant geothermal advantage, giving them valuable options for stable electricity production and direct use.

By harnessing these resources, they can provide a renewable, affordable, and very reliable energy supply as well as reach the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and climate goals set forth in the Paris Agreement.

Often described as the ‘hidden champion’ of renewable energies, geothermal power has many advantages that range from low emission of toxic gases, sustainable power supply, less reliance on fossil fuels, to employment opportunities for geologists, engineers, surveyors, drillers, etc.

The flip side is that while geothermal is less expensive to maintain, the exploration itself in locating and drilling a potential site can be an expensive and risky undertaking.

Also, lack of funding and the absence of technical expertise are some of the obstacles confronting the sector in Africa.

To this end, various funding schemes applicable to renewable energy projects are being set up mainly to create national and economic impact and to draw investors’ interest. One of such is the Geothermal Risk Mitigation Facility (GRMF).

Organized by the African Union Commission, the goal of the GRMF is to encourage public and private sector investment in geothermal power generation.

The initiative also seeks to provide financial support to mitigate the early-stage exploration risk often associated with geothermal projects.

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