Photo: The Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant in Þingvellir, Iceland. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2018

UN University Supports Iceland in Facilitating Developing Countries’ Access To Geo-Energy

By Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK (IDN) – 439 million Asians and 588 million sub-Saharan Africans lack access to electricity, according to the International Energy Authority’s Energy Access Outlook. The situation is worse for those living in rural areas: although 98 percent of urban Filipinos have access to electricity, this is only true for 84 percent of rural dwellers.

Aware of what millions have to forego and such wide gaps between the urban and rural populations, the Geothermal Training Programme of the United Nations University (UNU-GTP), the Government of Iceland and the National Energy Authority are assisting developing countries in capacity building for geothermal exploration and development.

Experts at UNU-GTP are of the view that geothermal development plays an important role in attaining sustainable development goals in the countries they deal with, especially in regard to access to energy and raising the proportion of renewables in the global energy mix (SDG7), but also in fostering gender equality and mitigating climate change (SDGs 5 and 13 respectively). With this in view, they have held short courses on the SDGs and related topics in Kenya and El Salvador over the years.

The UNU-GTPs Geothermal Training Programme in Iceland however consists of six months annual training for practicing professionals from developing and transitional countries with significant geothermal potential. In order to maximize technology transfer, priority is given to countries where geothermal development is already under way. An example is a seminar held in March 2018 with the support of the Manila-based Asian Development Bank.

Such seminars benefit the organizers as well. UNU-GTP director Ludvik S. Georgsson says that students develop strong connections with Iceland Geosurvey and other Icelandic companies working in the geothermal field. “Goodwill towards Iceland and the geothermal knowledge that we offer, after the training at UNU-GTP and the connections made at that time, has thus often led to projects for the companies – if not directly, at least indirectly,” he says.

The first two UNU-GTP students came from the Philippines, where they were working with the geothermal, State-run PNOC-EDC which has since been privatized and is now called Energy Development Council (EDC). The Philippines still funds its geothermal projects through the EDC, which is the largest geothermal operator in the Southeast Asian country and also funds geothermal ventures across Asia and the Pacific.

Alix Burrell, Energy Division Director of the Southeast Asia Department of the ADB says that geothermal drilling costs for geothermal power are very high and there are fewer long-term power purchase agreements available in the Philippines for the offtake of the power to sufficiently cover the high upfront drilling costs.

Partly for this reason, “ADB’s private sector team continues to review opportunities for financing private sector development of geothermal projects in both the Philippines and Indonesia,” she says, adding “ADB also provided significant support in 2016 to the Tiwi and Makban geothermal facilities, the seventh and fourth largest geothermal power stations in the world, respectively.”

Geothermal power projects in the Philippines began in the late 1970s and are concentrated in the Visayas region, particularly the islands of Leyte and Negros, though there are projects elsewhere, including one in northern Luzon. Geothermal remains the primary renewable energy source for the Philippines in various scenarios of energy mix projections from the Philippines Department of Energy.

Until earlier this year, when it was overtaken by Indonesia, the Philippines ranked second in the world to the USA in terms of installed geothermal capacity for electricity production, with 1,916 MW and almost 11% of the total electricity produced in the country. However, “most of the reserves in the Philippines are now fully developed,” says Germany-born Alexander Richter, who operates the main geothermal industry news platform, Think GeoEnergy, as well as being President of the International Geothermal Association.

The Energy Sector Group of ADB say that harnessing geothermal energy can help improve access to modern energy that is aligned with SDG 7: “ADB’s Energy Policy includes geothermal as one of the primary sources of renewable energy for our member countries … Where viable, technologies such as geothermal heat pumps can complement existing district heating systems.”

Geothermal power has benefits for Filipino communities, they say. Despite the initial high start-up costs such as drilling, “[it] produces low cost power over the long term which can bring down the overall tariffs in the country.”

Besides reducing reliance on imported coal, diesel or crude oil, “reliance on external fuel sources, such as coal, diesel or crude oil, requires foreign exchange exposure, usually to the US dollar, which imposes foreign exchange and hedging costs and those costs are passed on to consumers, resulting in higher energy prices.”

In Africa, geothermal reserves are only found in the East but are under-exploited compared to other forms of renewable energy. Over the years, Kenyans have been the most populous group on UNU-GTP courses.

This might change, though, when a new pan-African Geothermal Centre of Excellence starts operating later this year in Nakuru, Kenya. This centre, which is funded through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Iceland Development Agency and various African bodies, will train African geothermal professionals “and help the continent power its vision through clean energy,” according to the UNEP manager for Nairobi, Meseret Zemedkon.

East African geothermal reserves total 15,000 MW, but Kenya is the only country that is making use of its geothermal resources to a significant extent, with 676 MW of installed capacity as of April 2018.

“Geothermal energy accounts for up to 50% of the electricity used in Kenya,” says Richter, all of it coming from power plants at Olkaria in the East Africa Rift Valley, about 100 km northwest of Nairobi.

An Icelandic food research company, MATIS, has also teamed up with the Kenyan Geothermal Development Company (GDC) to utilize geothermal heat for drying maize in Menengai, based on Icelandic experience in using geothermal energy for drying stockfish, cod heads and other food products.

In general, fossil fuels are used for the drying process, but geothermal will provide a cheaper and cleaner option while at the same time reducing the carbon footprint by 95%. Hot water is also now used in Menengai for milk pasteurization and fish farming to boost food security.

Besides its use in electricity production, in Kenya geothermal energy from two small power plants owned by the Oserian Flowers company is also used to heat greenhouses for flower production and to provide 24-hour electricity to the greenhouses. Carbon emissions from the steam are piped directly to the greenhouses.

Currently, Kenya utilizes 1,631 MW of renewable energy and another major geothermal power plant, Olkaria V, due to come on line in July 2019, will generate 168 MW of energy.

Approximately $125 million has been allocated for further geothermal exploration in Kenya in their latest budget. With various smaller projects in the pipeline, installed capacity could reach more than 1,200 MW by 2021.

Most of UNU-GTP’s past and present Kenyan students are connected with Olkaria in some way.

Nevertheless, development at Olkaria has not been entirely smooth, as Olkaria operators KenGen had to move some families belonging to the Maasai tribe to other spots that were less favourable to their way of living. The Maasai were not pleased and halted construction of the Olkaria V plant in 2016.

Relations became less strained, however, after talks were set up between the Maasai and New Zealand Maori group Ngati Tahu, who faced similar problems but have become aware of how they can benefit from the deals. Stakeholder engagement on site is important, “such as using waste water for pools and spas, employment, and access to district heating,” Richter says. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 July 2018]

Photo: The Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant in Þingvellir, Iceland. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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