Africa - The continent is slowly warming up to wind energy

In a few years from now, Africa’s 22nd largest country, Kenja, will become home to the continent’s largest wind farm – a project that will account for 20% of current electricity production

Africa Goes Wind!Africa Goes Wind!
Enterprising Dutch duo to turn Kenya’s remote Turkana district into a wind energy production hub

It may not come as a surprise that Africa, due to its vast resources of oil, gas and coal, generates the bulk of its electricity from fossil fuels. More and more governments across the continent, however, and particularly those in the eastern region, seem to be warming up to the idea of renewable energy.

Take Kenya, for instance: In a few years from now, Africa’s 22nd largest country will be home to the continent’s largest wind farm – a project that will account for 20% of Kenya’s current electricity production. Until a few years ago, the Turkana District in the northwest of Kenya, in the Rift Valley province, was seen and treated by authorities as worthless wasteland. And not without reason:

This dusty, desert-like wilderness – which is littered with lava rocks – is without a doubt one of the most impassable and inhospitable parts of the country. This is mainly due to the scorching climate: In Turkana, the temperatures during the day easily surpass the 45° Celsius mark, while precipitation usually stays below 250 millimetres per year. Hence the region, with an area measuring approximately 77 000 square kilometres, is unsuitable for agriculture and, therefore, apart from some herdsmen and their families and communities living in a few towns, it is pretty much deserted country.

To give one an idea: The Turkana District has a population density of seven people per square kilometre compared to 54 inhabitants per square kilometre in the rest of Kenya. This is another reason the authorities never really paid attention to Turkana. It is right in the hinterland and not in a part of the country where voters live. The Kenyan government’s lack of interest in this region has changed profoundly in recent years, and that is a direct result of the development of what is to become Africa’s largest wind farm.

“Companies and entrepreneurs who want to lease land in the Turkana District now have to pay tenfold what we had to pay,” says Carlo van Wageningen, one of the brains behind the Lake Turkana Wind Power project. When complete, in approximately two years from now, it will comprise 367 wind turbines with a joint capacity of 300 megawatts. “That is a little over 20% of Kenya’s current energy generation capacity,” says Van Wageningen, who was born in The Netherlands and moved to Kenya during his childhood.

“We will start the construction and installation of the wind turbines by the end of this year, probably some time in the last quarter. “We will construct the wind farm in batches of 50MW, or 65 turbines. Batch by batch, we will connect the farm to Kenya’s power grid,” he explains, adding that the construction phase will create roughly 1 800 jobs. “In two years from now, we will be producing a total of 300MW. “Yes, the Kenyan government will buy the power we will be generating,” Van Wageningen noted. “The contract regarding tariffs and related matters was finalised earlier this year, and will be in place for the next two decades.”

The idea for Africa’s largest wind farm was born about five years ago. “For countless years, I had heard from a Dutch compatriot and friend of mine – who, like me, has also lived in Kenya for many years – about the wind in the Turkana District,” Van Wageningen recalls. “Willem (his friend) is a farmer and exports fruit and vegetables to Europe and other parts of the world. In his spare time, he likes to fish at Lake Turkana, which is the world’s largest permanent desert as well as the world’s largest alkaline lake – it is very rich in fish.

“At some point in 2004, I was running a waste removal company in Kenya at the time. “When Willem returned from another one of his fishing trips, all he could talk about was the wind. “This time he was adamant: we had to do something with this resource, which he called a potential gold mine – the problem was that neither of us had the necessary knowledge, skills or experience with regard to wind energy and the exploitation thereof,” he adds.

In an attempt to find a solution to the problem, the duo invited an acquaintance, a wind energy developer from The Netherlands. “After his arrival in Nairobi, we went straight to Turkana District. Of course, when we arrived, there was not a breath of wind,” Van Wageningen relates. “I can’t deny that I was feeling nervous, as our guest had come all the way from The Netherlands to one of the most remote places in Kenya; it was quite embarrassing. “The owner of the small lodge we had booked for the night, a German, had his own explanation on why the wind was not blowing – he blamed it all on the rain. I remember how all three of us looked up, seeing nothing but a bright blue and cloudless sky,” he says.

“Later that night, as we were lying in bed, it suddenly started to rain. The shower developed into a heavy downpour that lasted five minutes or so. “Immediately after the rain had subsided, as our host had promised, the wind picked up steam with all its might. Never had I been so happy with Mother Nature,” shares Van Wageningen. “And what about our guest? He was so impressed he termed the Turkana District ‘a paradise for wind energy developers’. Not just because of the wind strength, but because of the predictability. The wind’s predictability in the Turkana region is incredible; every day of the year, you see the same pattern. “The wide open spaces and the incredibly low population density help too,” he adds.

Shortly afterward, Van Wageningen, Willem and the wind energy developer appointed the German wind energy consultancy firm, DEWI, to carry out wind measurement tests. “The company measured the wind speed every 10 minutes at heights of 43m, 62m, 81m and 83m above the ground. The average wind speed they recorded was 11m per second, compared to the average of 7m in Europe,” Van Wageningen explains.

“The proposal we submitted to Kenyan authorities was welcomed, and we were granted permission to survey the project site and to study the wind resources almost immediately.” To come up with an idea is one thing, however, to put that particular plan into practice is a different ball game altogether, says Van Wageningen. Firstly, there was the financial issue: the park with 367 turbines would cost around €617 million (R5.96 billion). “This obstacle was taken care of by the African Development Bank, which provided the bulk of the loans,” he explains. “Personally, I had my eyes set on a wind farm of 50MW to 80MW,” Van Wageningen confesses. “But, according to my partners – and in particular the wind energy developer – we had to go as large as possible to ensure a quick return on investment to keep our investors happy.”

Another problem was that the Turkana District at the time was not connected to the Kenya power grid. “This meant we had to construct a transmission cable from the nearest power point to where we wanted to build the wind farm,” Van Wageningen notes. “The distance between the region and the nearest power point ended up being 427km. A transmission line would, therefore, cost us approximately €110 million (R1.06bn) – money we did not have. “In the end, the Spanish and Kenyan governments came to our rescue and provided the funding for the cable, with a 75% and 25% split respectively,” he says.

Due to the remoteness of the Turkana District, the project required more than simply building and installing 360-odd wind turbines. “The site is situated 1 000km from Mombasa, of which 200km of road is impassable. Because of the remoteness, we have to make sure we can do everything on site,” explains Van Wageningen. ”We have decided to build an entire village for our employees, complete with clinics, schools and shops. We also have to build warehouses and a workshop for the maintenance of our turbines. “Yes, it is indeed a huge adventure, a mammoth task, but I am very excited about it.”

The biggest, but not Kenya’s first:
The Lake Turkana wind farm may be Kenya’s largest, but it is not the country’s first wind energy project. Recently, Kenya’s Minister of Energy Kiraitu Murungi opened the country’s first wind farm. Comprising just over half a dozen turbines, the 5.1-megawatt project is situated on Ngong Hills, just outside the capital of Nairobi. It is said that more turbines are on the agenda, as the farm’s owner – the Kenya Electricity Generating Company – wants to expand the project’s capacity to an approximate total of 20.4MW. Both wind farms form part of Kenya’s strategy to increase the country’s overall power production to 3 000MW by 2013. This includes 500MW from clean energy sources.

Wind energy expensive?
Some people claim that wind energy and renewable energy in general is more expensive than conventional energy sources such as coal. That is perhaps the case when comparing old coal-fired plants to new wind farms. However, when comparing new coal projects with new wind farms, one can conclude that wind energy is not more expensive. Take the 4 800-megawatt Medupi coal-fired power plant (in South Africa): The project’s price tag currently stands at a staggering R125bn, which comes down to R25m per megawatt. The 300-megawatt wind farm that is under construction in Kenya costs €5.9bn or slightly less than R20m per megawatt.

Renewable energy in the rest of Africa:
Kenya is not the only African country that is exploring the world of renewable energy. In 2008, Ethiopia announced the construction of a 120-megawatt wind farm. The total cost for the project, of which the capacity is set at 15% of Ethiopia’s total electricity output, is estimated at R2.04bn (€210m) or R16.6m per megawatt. The wind farm should be completed some time this year.

In Tanzania, which has a wind power capacity of 50MW, the construction of a 210-megawatt wind farm is under way. The project, which costs R2.7bn (R12.8m per megawatt), should be completed at the end of the year and has been funded by a group of South Korean investors. Uganda, too, has plans to build wind as well as solar parks.

Last year, Morocco inaugurated a 140-megawatt wind farm comprising 165 wind turbines, situated 34km outside Tangiers. It is the country’s second wind farm, and it is estimated this project could save up to 126 000 metric tonnes of oil per year.

For more information on this article or if you would like to know more about what www.windfair.net can offer, please do not hesitate to contact Trevor Sievert at ts@windfair.net

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DEWI / Special thanks to Mirium Manack
Posted by Trevor Sievert, Online Editorial Journalist
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