Africa’s largest wind farm set to connect remote Kenya to the grid

With its spectacular jade waters ringed by ochre red volcanic hills, Lake Turkana, a desert lake in Kenya’s rugged northerly corner provided a wonderful spot for Dutchman Willem Dolleman’s annual fishing expeditions in his adopted homeland.

But Dolleman’s trips were always ruined by the difficulty of finding somewhere to stay in a vastly underdeveloped area where tour lodges are located hundreds of miles apart.

Every time he pitched his camp in the evening, a violent gust of wind would uproot the tent sending it into the vanishing horizon. He ended up spending numerous nights in his car.

“Willem constantly told us that someone had to do something to harness the incredible wind power he encountered in the area,” said Carlo van Wageningen, a business partner to Dolleman who is now taking part in a consortium that is constructing Africa’s largest windfarm.

“The problem was that the conditions were not right because at the time in the 1980s and 90s diesel was relatively cheap and it made economic sense for Kenya to source its power from thermal sources.”

Things changed in 2004 when the price of oil climbed and many countries with steep fuel import bills, such as Kenya, began to look seriously at alternative energy sources to provide their power needs.

Still, when Wageningen and his partners approached Kenyan government officials with a proposal to establish a 310 megawatt (MW) windfarm – equal to 20% of the country’s installed electricity generating capacity – on the shores of Lake Turkana, most dismissed it as a fantasy.

Loiyangalani district in Marsabit county where the southern tip of the lake is located is one of Kenya’s most remote and historically marginalised regions, about 1,200km (750 miles) from the main seaport in Mombasa and roughly 600km from the capital, Nairobi.

There were no paved roads anywhere near the lake and the nearest transmission grid lay some 428 kilometres away.

“Everybody thought we were a bunch of looneys because of its size: 310MW of installed capacity in an area which is extremely remote and where there is nothing. No roads, no other type of infrastructure: that made it to many people a pipedream but left us to develop the project unhindered by politics or other interests.”

The developers retained the services of two leading Dutch experts in the field of wind energy, Henk Hutting and Harry Wassenaar.

Their early experiments, near where Dolleman had suffered his tent difficulties, returned disappointing results.

The wind speed was so ferocious, they reported, that it would break any turbine because it was well above the average speed of 12 metres per second that they are designed to handle.

The team measured wind speeds at several nearby areas before settling on a spot tucked between two nearby hills, Mount Kulal and Mount Njiru. It offered what the researchers described as a “wind developers dream” average speed of 11.8 metres per second.

Further tests found that the wind – which was highly predictable and flowed in a constant direction at consistent speeds at various times of the day all year round – could potentially generate power at nearly double the level of efficiency of many windfarms in Europe, meaning it could be sold at a relatively low cost.

“Wind power varies depending on the time of day,” said Mugo Kibati, chairman of the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project. “Your typical windfarm would have 25-35% utilisation capacity. Lake Turkana will be 62% utilisation capacity.”

That helped convince the government to get on board but there was also scepticism from the local community.

“People really doubted when the initial teams came to the ground to explain what they were doing,” said Stakwel Yurenimo, a community leader who was one of the first to embrace the windfarm project and served as a liaison to the project team. “Nobody would buy or understand the idea that the plan was to establish wind turbines to generate power. No one has electricity here anyway, so most people told me that this was a plan by wazungu (white people) to conduct research on the locals and then leave.”

One of the problems was the length of time it took for the project financing negotiations to be closed.

A number of lenders and equity partners, including the Norwegian, Dutch, Finnish, Danish, European and German investment banks and the British Aldwych International Limited company – which already operates a 90MW diesel power plant in the Kenyan Coast – quickly came on board. Danish wind energy giant Vestas also signed on to supply the turbines. But the World Bank raised a number of concerns, including whether Kenya could absorb all the electricity from the various wind, geothermal and hydropower projects it is undertaking.

That proved to be the most serious question levelled at the viability of the project but Kenyan government officials overrode the World Bank objections, pointing out that the east African country’s goals of transitioning from reliance on primary products, such as agriculture to manufacturing, would create the right level of demand.

It is a view echoed by Kibati, who previously served as head of the Vision 2030 secretariat which developed the country’s medium-term development plan: “I think the economy is going to grow just as fast as the power generation capacity is going to grow. I highly doubt we’re going to have excess power in the near future. In my view, growth has been constrained by lack of power. I fully expect Kenya will be growing 7-8% over the next decade.”

The African Development Bank took the place of the World Bank and the project financing phase was closed in December 2014.

There are still issues to be resolved. Some representatives of local communities have alleged the project violates the community land rights of the locals. Kenya’s high court declined to halt the project but asked the county government, the community representatives and the project managers to reach an out of court settlement on the matter, an issue which is still pending resolution.

Today, a sprawling, mostly-flat, dun-coloured terrain of moody, stumpy thorn bushes in the Sarima village around 40km from the shores of Lake Turkana is home to the most ambitious infrastructure development project carried out in northern Kenya since independence.

Covering 40,000 acres (162km2), the project will entail the installation of 365 wind turbines, each with a capacity of 850kW and is expected to be fully operational in mid 2017.

A 204km road linking the area to the nearest paved road will be built, and the Kenyan electricity transmission company, with funding by both the Kenyan government and a concessional loan from Spain, will construct a 428km transmission line to link it to the national grid.

Reaction to the project among locals has been mixed. A $600,000-700,000 community development budget means the contractors have been able to sink boreholes and deliver water to communities while the contractors have promised to light up most of the towns near the area once the power comes online.

Still, the sudden changes to the community have not been without challenges, as Stephen Nakeno, a community leader, explained. “So many people have come in [to the site] looking for jobs. Many in the community also have new sources of income. We are seeing divorce rates going up. Venereal diseases which were unknown are now an issue. We need a permanent doctor stationed here.”

Agnes Ngare Emase, a vivacious lady in her 50s who broke from a traditional Turkana dance to speak to reporters, said the contractors needed to break their habit of employing mostly young men and give more jobs to women.

Still, many said they expected considerable benefits from the project. “This is an area that was completely forgotten,” said Stakwel Yurenimo. “The best thing is that the roads under construction will open up the place and bring in development, meaning children will have different options from their fathers and grandfathers. A litre of diesel is 50% more expensive here than in Nairobi, all because there is no road. Most people don’t worry too much about the energy but are happy that the powerful wind which was seen as a nuisance for generations might open up the region and link it with the rest of the country.”

in Loiyangalani and in Nairobi