Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Uganda turns to hot springs for power production

Plagued by the notoriety of the current power shortage, Uganda is turning to geothermal energy with the hope that the unfamiliar form of power production could provide answers.

The Ministry of energy has committed $45 million (Shs89.5 billion) towards exploration of sites with geothermal power potential. Geothermal energy is mainly produced by trapping steam released by hot rocks with water reservoirs deep in the earth and using it to power turbines.

Uganda is endowed with a number of hot springs and geysers which local residents often believe possess healing powers for various ailments. However, the country could find better use for the hot springs strewn around the country if the current exploration efforts yield positive results. The ministry of energy is in advanced stages of exploring 23 sites around the country to establish the potential and feasibility for geothermal power production before production can begin.

However, according to the ministry of energy, seismic surveys would initially focus on sites in Katwe, Buranga, and Kibiro, and some of the areas in western Uganda that have a higher potential for generating geothermal energy. At the second African Rift Geothermal Conference, the governments of Kenya, Eritrea, Uganda, Tanzania, Djibouti, and Ethiopia mooted a plan where the regional governments could come together to draw a plan that would speed up development of geothermal energy in the region.

Mr Simon D’ujanga, the minister of State for Energy, said the governments are considering such a proposal because of high capital cost involved to undertake individual projects. “The future is about diversification into other sources of power,” Mr D’ujanga said. “This will also be a milestone towards power interconnection with neighbouring countries to access surplus power.”

The minister said construction should start on at least three sites by the end of next year subsequent production could start by 2012. The government hopes to get funding from the World Bank, Sweden, Germany, Norway, and Japan.

The move to explore the potential for geothermal energy perhaps reflects the government’s intention to explore other options after years of relying on hydro electric power. Reduction in Lake Victoria water levels put into question the government’s reliance on hydro power forcing it to turn to the rather expensive thermal power generators that have a combined capacity of 150 MW. The government has also promoted solar power as an alternative in its rural electrification plan and also shown interest in exploring wind energy especially in Karamoja area, where strong winds prevail.

The East African Great Rift Valley has a high potential for geothermal power production. A United Nations-backed project testing new seismic and drilling technology in Kenya has proved that geothermal is a viable and cost effective source of power that has the potential to produce 7,000 MW in Africa, Reuters news agency recently reported.

“It is part of Africa’s future,” Mr Achim Steiner, the executive director of UNEP told a news conference on the sidelines of a December U.N. conference on fighting global warming in Poland. “Geothermal is 100 per cent indigenous, environmentally-friendly and a technology that has been underutilised for too long,” he added.

The UNEP hopes the pilot drilling technology in Kenya could roll forward the plan to cover Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania in 2009 by using the equipment and techniques piloted in Kenya and underwriting the risks of drilling.

The total funding of nearly $18 million (Shs35.8 billion) is provided by the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank. Of the countries in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya seems to have been more committed to exploit geothermal energy. Kenya produces 67 MW from geothermal resources and expects to produce 576 MW by 2019.

Mr D’ujanga said the government has targeted 1,000 MW by 2012 if it adds the expected 450 MW from geothermal projects, 180 MW at Bujagali and more from mini hydro power projects. The geothermal project, he said, would be pursued concurrently with the initially planned power projects at Karuma and min-hydro hydro power projects in western Uganda.

According to Mr D’ujang, the government is consulting with Iceland which is a world leader in the use of geothermal energy for domestic and industrial purposes. While the government seems bent on expanding its options to geothermal energy, experts warn that such a venture is capital intensive and therefore the government needs to have its priorities right.

Some energy experts describe the geothermal project as ambitious and that it may not provide sufficient remedies to a growing economy unless specific strategies are adopted.

Dr Izael Pereira Da Silva, the director of Makerere University Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation, said with the current capacity of 300 MW, the 1000 MW target was far below considering the soaring industry demand and the increasing population. He said with the current installed capacity against a population of 30 million each Ugandan is entitled to 10 MW compared to South Africa’s 115 MW per person. This he said meant that 1000 MW would be even lower with a population growth rate of 3.5 per cent.

Eng Livingston Bangi, the managing director of Energy Plus Uganda, an energy consultancy firm, said geothermal was a good initiative but government needed to adopt a more cautious approach starting by synthesising and analysing the general and specific problems that exist within the current energy system. He said this would give birth to a series of technical and policy-oriented recommendations for rural energy development for example subsidizing geothermal to make energy affordable like the case in Ethiopia.

“We have to refocus the energy sector as a service to bring the benefits of electricity to the rural poor and attract investors by competitively pricing energy,” he said. But this he said would only happen also if government instituted better management of the national grid which currently leaks over a quarter of energy produced.

Mr Da Silva said the development of geothermal energy was a welcome undertaking and raises the hope for the possibility of the country attaining energy security. He said a power pool especially for geothermal would provide a stable, affordable, renewable energy source that is completely sustainable. “But government must start expediting its energy projects especially those geared towards creating a power mix like Kenya to off set ideas into realities to keep pace with other economies,” he said.

Dr Da Silva said it would be logical for government to also consider investing in biomass, continue with mini- and micro-hydroelectric projects and energy conservation.

He said expediting the planning and exhibiting the political will would build confidence in the private sector whose capital is needed alongside donor funding. But Mr D’ujang said: “We are hoping for positive results having adopted a policy to encourage the private sector through Public Private Partnerships.”

He however said private sector players remained concerned that even if electricity works at the flick of a switch, consumers and businesses may not be able to afford service at a rate viable enough for profit-driven companies to recoup full costs.

Even as the government seems to be moving full throttle into expanding its source of power, the East Africa Power Master plan Phase two shows that regional neighbours could rely more on Uganda for power production. According to the plan, Uganda would export 100 MW in addition to the 50 MW it committed to Kenya, starting 2015 and another 100MW in 2015.
Eng Bangi said the government has a chance to overhaul the energy sector and bring on geothermal power incrementally, as demand increases.

Dr Da Silva said the Iceland success story stems on the good policies for example government should begin thinking about utilizing geothermal in multiple ways not just for heat and electricity. “It must go beyond just energy to be used to promote tourism, health, heavy industries and educational purposes. This more interactive, holistic approach is much different like the case in Iceland,” he said.

About 87 per cent of the population enjoys central heating by geothermal energy at a price that is generally less than half of the comparable cost of oil or electric heating, thus contributing to making Iceland one of the cleanest environments in Europe. It is the only country in Western Europe that still has large resources of competitively priced hydroelectric power and geothermal energy remaining to be harnessed.

Although electricity consumption per capita in Iceland is second to none in the world, at about 28,200 kWh per person, only a fraction of the country’s energy potential has been tapped. “While this goes ahead, we should also think of encouraging elementary sources of renewable energy in the future like tree planting,” Mr Da Silva said.

This would be another viable option because the sector is dominated by biomass fuels with 93 per cent has come from wood fuel, 6 per cent imported petroleum and 1 per cent from electricity making it among the lowest per capita consumption of commercial energy in the world.