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Africa's largest wind farm set to emerge from Kenyan desert

Kenya built its first wind farm, above, outside Nairobi. In January, construction will begin on a $760 million wind farm in the Chalbi Desert.
Kenya built its first wind farm, above, outside Nairobi. In January, construction will begin on a $760 million wind farm in the Chalbi Desert. (Miguel Juárez For The Washington Post)

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By Christopher Vourlias
Saturday, November 21, 2009

NAIROBI -- Kenya's Chalbi Desert is a bleak, forbidding stretch of coarse sand and ash-gray ridges broken by clusters of tiny huts. It is also one of the windiest places on Earth, experts say, and it soon will be the site of Africa's largest wind farm.

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In January, a consortium of Dutch and Kenyan investors will begin construction on the $760 million project, which envisions more than 350 wind turbines towering over desert expanses near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. When completed in 2012, the wind farm is expected to boost the power supply in this nation by almost 30 percent.

Kenya is one of the continent's greenest countries, with nearly three-quarters of its power coming from hydroelectric and geothermal sources. But its efforts to harness the wind have put it at the forefront of a budding movement in Africa, ahead of a global climate change conference in Copenhagen next month.

Ethiopia inked a $300 million deal last year with the French company Vergnet to build a wind farm. Tanzania is constructing two facilities that will boost its power supply by nearly 10 percent. And South Africa, the continent's largest economy, hopes to complete 18 wind farms by 2014.

Kenya's first wind farm, in the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, began feeding into the national grid in August. Additional sites are being scouted near Lake Naivasha, a popular tourist retreat northwest of Nairobi, and in the blustery northeast near Ethiopia.

"What you see in Africa is a severe shortage" of power, said Phylip Leferink, sales and marketing manager for Vestas, the world's leading supplier of wind turbines. "They have an urgent need for bringing up the capacity as soon as possible."

Power shortages have forced blackouts from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Johannesburg this year, but the shortages have been especially acute in Kenya. A prolonged drought has dried up riverbeds and crippled the country's hydroelectric plants. Officials have imported fossil fuels as an emergency stopgap, raising concerns among environmentalists. Energy prices have soared.

The effects have been felt from the industrial centers to the sprawling shantytowns and the suburbs of the capital. Rationing has brought rolling blackouts to Nairobi, and manufacturers have been forced to scale down production because of power cuts. In the aftermath of last year's post-election violence, the power shortages have been a further burden for a country struggling to regain its footing as East Africa's economic powerhouse.

"We are paying for the sins of our leaders," said Geoffrey Machariah, a taxi driver, who endures frequent power cuts in his Nairobi home. "Since last year, we are all suffering."

The Turkana project is this country's most ambitious energy venture to date. The site encompasses 25,000 acres on the edge of the Chalbi Desert, an area chosen for the "natural, low-level jet stream" blowing south from the Sahara and the Ethiopian highlands, said Nick Taylor, chief operating officer of the Lake Turkana Wind Power consortium. It is part of a broader initiative to introduce nearly 500 megawatts of wind power within five years.

Leferink, the Vestas marketing manager, estimated that the Ngong Hills project took two years to complete, whereas "more traditional generating methods, like coal-fired power plants, need a long lead time to be realized."

However, the technology required to build large-scale wind farms involves substantial investment. In addition to its on-site costs, the Turkana consortium invested in extensive road upgrades to transport equipment from Nairobi to the site, Taylor said.

But Hermann Oelsner, president of the African Wind Energy Association, said the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term costs. "In the beginning the cost appears high, but if you calculate the electricity costs over the whole lifetime of a project, then it is cheaper than fossil fuels."

Sub-Saharan Africa still lags far behind the developed world as a source of wind power. But the prospects south of the Sahara are improving, in part because of access to better and cheaper technologies, and because of growing uncertainty, in the face of climate change, that traditional energy sources will be sufficient to meet growing demand.

As governments turn to newer technologies to shore up their energy supplies, Oelsner and others say wind will play an increasingly vital role.

"Wind will be a big part of the energy mix . . . as we run out of fossil fuels," he said. "But we must start now."

Vourlias is a freelance journalist based in East Africa.


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