KenGen (Kenya Electricity Generating Company PLC), Kenya’s leading electric power generation company, and the University of Twente are working together, as part of a three year collaboration in the field of geothermal energy. The partners have set up a collaborative programme including both on-site activities at KenGen’s power plants in the Olkaria region as well as projects on knowledge exchange and capacity building. Thom Palstra, rector magnificus at the University of Twente, and Tom Veldkamp, dean of the ITC Faculty of Geo-information Science and Earth Observation of the UT, attended the festive kick-off event.
Learning and exchanging knowledge
The University of Twente and KenGen have set up a programme running several years, as a result of a Memorandum of Understanding which was signed in 2016. The emphasize in the programme is on acquiring and exchange of knowledge. But also, as part of the programme, specific research projects will be undertaken at the geothermal plants of KenGen. The partners aim at creating an UAV (drone) platform that can be used for monitoring purposes with help of camera footage and infrared images. Also, there are plans to set up an advanced monitoring system to enable KenGen to use existing (geo) data more effectively to plan and monitor its activities. This includes Earth Observation data.
Generating energy better, more efficient and safer
The joint project aims to lead to a more sustainable, efficient and safe way of generating geothermal energy. Chris Hecker, who is an assistant professor in geological remote sensing at ITC and programme coordinator of the programme, says: “Adequate monitoring results in better grip on geothermal extraction processes. There are many factors that influence the extraction, including changing precipitation patterns as a result of climate change. By being able to anticipate adequately, we will ensure more sustainable and effective extraction processes. At the same time, we will watch the influence of extraction on its surroundings closely: groundwater, surface water, nature and air quality, to name a few.”
Freek van der Meer, professor in geothermal energy and vice dean responsible for external collaborations states: “By contributing to various projects in this field, we are building bridges between parties all over the world that face similar challenges. Here, we can learn a lot from the experiences in Kenya and try to translate them into possible solutions elsewhere, for example in the Netherlands.”
Geothermal energy in Kenya
Kenya began exploring for geothermal resources in 1950. In 1981, it became the first African country to use geothermal energy, and so far, it has been the most successful. Kenya ranks eighth globally in terms of geothermal energy utilization, with an installed geothermal capacity of 865 megawatts electric (MWe, distinct from power from thermal energy), about 29% of the country’s total installed electricity capacity in 2019.
Geothermal exploration and exploitation activities in Kenya are concentrated along the Kenya Rift System. The Kenya Rift System runs north to south and is characterized by the presence of Quaternary volcanic centres (i.e., younger than about 2.6 million years) along its margin, with older centres located farther north and younger ones to the south.
The Kenya Rift System covers a large area, although most geothermal energy production in Kenya comes from a single field, the Olkaria geothermal field. The Olkaria field was, and still is, ranked the highest in resource potential in Kenya. It has been under development and exploitation since 1981. Production from Olkaria has increased from an initial 15 MWe to about 862.5 MWe today. The part of the Olkaria field operated by KenGen produces roughly 700 MWe, about 81% of total geothermal production and about 20% of the total energy production of Kenya.
Space data combined with in-situ measurements
The Olkaria field lab has been investigating the intricacy of the geothermal motor at the Olkaria field since September 2019, and this project will continue for a number of years (an initial period of 2 years followed by a scientific evaluation). Measurements from the field lab will be integrated with well logs, production data, and freely available satellite radar data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 and thermal infrared data from NASA’s ECOSTRESS (Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station) mission to monitor water circulation and temperature variation of the geothermal motor.