It may be costly to build, but the generating potential is vast and the environmental footprint smaller, backers say
ADDIS ABABA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ethiopia’s ambitious plans to become a carbon-neutral economy by 2025 have attracted headlines for the scale of the country’s hydropower projects - but some experts hope that geothermal power will gradually get a look in too.
Hydroelectric dams currently under construction in the country have garnered international attention, especially the 1,870 megawatt (MW) Gibe III Dam and the 6,000 MW Grand Renaissance Dam.
But an often overlooked source of energy lies under the Great East Africa Rift Valley and the Afar Rift Valley, which pass through Ethiopia.
Best known for their scenic lakes and for both active and dormant volcanoes, the two valleys also harbour a largely untapped potential for geothermal electricity production, in which heat stored in the earth is tapped and used to drive turbines to create power.
Both Kenya and Ethiopia today tap some of that geothermal power, but scaling up production could help both countries move toward cleaner and more reliable sources of energy to meet growing demand.
Miskir Negash, a spokesperson for the state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo), says Ethiopia has the potential to generate at least 5,000 MW from geothermal energy.
“We plan to upgrade the Aluto Langano geothermal project, which currently produces 7 MW, ten-fold to 70 MW by 2015,” Negash said.
The plant, which is located about 200 km (125 miles) south of the capital, Addis Ababa, is being built with $12 million of financial assistance from the Japanese government, and $13 million from the World Bank. The Ethiopian government is contributing $10 million to the costs.
Nevertheless, geothermal power has so far failed to get much traction in the government’s current energy production expansion plans. According to EEPCo, extracting the energy requires drilling down as far as 3 km into the earth’s crust, which is both expensive and technologically difficult. This, along with the dearth of qualified Ethiopian geothermal technicians, makes it more costly to produce electricity from geothermal sources than from hydro and wind – though geothermal power is cheaper than solar power in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is in the midst of an ambitious five-year Growth and Transformation Plan which runs until 2015. Under the plan, the government aims to increase power generation from its current level of just under 2,200 MW to 10,000 MW.
Out of this total, 9,000 MW is expected to come from hydropower, with wind contributing 890 MW, followed by geothermal at 70 MW, and solar power at just 30 MW.
Despite its relative expense, some experts argue that geothermal is a clean and efficient form of energy that Ethiopia should not ignore.
“Ethiopia, being endowed geographically with two rift valleys, has one of the greatest untapped potentials of thermal energy,” said Gezahegn Yirgu, a professor at the college of Natural Science and School of Earth Science at Addis Ababa University. He added that neighbouring Kenya, which has fewer geothermal resources, has been able to generate up to 300 MW of geothermal energy.
THE CASE FOR GEOTHERMAL
Yirgu argues that because geothermal power plants tend to require less space than hydropower and wind energy plants, fewer people need be displaced by their construction, which strengthens the case for the sustainability and feasibility of geothermal power.
According to Yirgu, the technology is easily scalable and can generate electricity from very small units up to very large ones, enabling it to be used under a variety of circumstances.
Yirgu acknowledged that sources of geothermal power in Ethiopia are close to active volcanoes, and that there is a degree of vulnerability to earthquakes.
While the five-year Growth and Transformation Plan’s geothermal project portfolio seems thin, Negash says that the government is preparing a “GTP II” programme which will expand geothermal power, although he declined to specify any particular project.
The EEPCo spokesperson also emphasised the government’s willingness to welcome private investors in the field, given its own limited resources. No concrete proposals have been forthcoming yet, he said.
A private investor who declined to be named said that he was considering investing in geothermal power because it was efficient and a worthwhile investment in the long run, notwithstanding its initial high capital cost.
The additional energy could be used in Ethiopia for mining projects or to meet the more general needs of the population in remote and arid regions which are generally disconnected from the electric grid.
E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.
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