More than 3 million years ago, an ape living on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya made what was probably the most advanced tool the world had ever seen. This month, the same site saw that ape’s descendants take another technological step forwards, drawing power from one of the most challenging places in which we’ve ever managed to build a wind farm.
Millions of years ago, when Australopithecines – an extinct group of hominins – were carving stone tools in the Turkana Valley, its environment was probably quite inviting. Today the area is very dry and supports one of the least dense populations in Eastern Africa. The small population is far too poor to use much electricity. The power from the Lake Turkana wind farm is mostly being sent 430 kilometers (270 miles) to Nairobi.
To make the farm happen, installing high-voltage transmission towers was just part of the challenge. When construction began the area lacked roads capable of carrying the large equipment required.
So why would anyone build a wind farm in such an uninviting place? The answer, unsurprisingly, is blowing in the wind, and Lake Turkana has a lot of it. The combination of a dip in the jet stream over Eastern Africa, which brings it close to the surface of the Earth, and the way the local topography funnels the wind, makes the wind farm’s location probably the windiest place on any continent, Antarctica aside.
One day, its boosters hope, Lake Turkana could power 20 percent of East Africa. The 310-megawatt farm, made from 365 turbines, is a test of whether the location’s wind resource can overcome its remoteness. The wind farm was all built and ready to operate by December 2017, but the power line to carry electricity to the Kenyan grid suffered one delay after another. Now, finally, it has been completed and transmission has begun, although variations are expected until December.
We know many animals use tools, and probably did so long before our ancestors joined in. However, the carefully knapped stone cores found on the shores of Lake Turkana are the oldest tools ever found, and probably represented the most sophisticated technology the world had seen at the time.
That can’t quite be said of the blades now harvesting the air by the Lake’s shores, which are small in comparison with those dotting the North Sea. Nevertheless, the site has already been the testing ground of laser technology to choose the best tower locations. If it succeeds, the complex endeavor of building Africa’s largest wind farm in such a difficult location, and using it to power one of the poorest, but fastest-growing, regions on Earth, could one day come to be seen as another major milestone in humanity’s development.