The Geothermal Energy Potential of East Africas Rift Valley

The Great Rift Valley of eastern Africa is known as one of the geological wonders of the world. Recently, various areas of the Rift Valley have become significant points of interest as sights for geothermal energy potential. Geothermal energy is not only sustainable and clean, but is also low cost after the initial start-up. When coupled with the hydropower and diesel-based thermal power already being used in much of the region, it could easily provide a substantial amount of power to large areas of Africa. Many of the nations where the Rift Valley is located suffer from frequent droughts, dramatic population increases and the high cost of fossil fuels. Unlike hydropower it is unaffected by the weather and it also would not be affected by fluctuations in prices of fossil fuels. In addition, CO2 emissions from geothermal plants are 2,000 times lower than those from fossil fuel plants. 

The Rift Valley is actually a large system of many rifts. The largest rift is in the Afar region of Ethiopia. The system also includes the East African Great Lakes. The entire system is thousands of kilometers in length in Africa alone and it also extends into the Red Sea. The exact cause of the formation of the rifts is still up for debate. Along the rifts are numerous pockets of thermal energy in the crust. The pockets are sustained by the constant radioactive decay of elements. The geothermal gradient that extends from the core of the earth to the crust keeps the thermal energy flowing at a continuous rate via conduction.

According to the US Geothermal Association some regions could produce geothermal energy with a potential range of 2.5 to 6.5 gigawatts. As a result, more and more countries surrounding the Great Rift Valley are showing interest, but are still facing a number of obstacles, from start-up costs to regulatory challenges. Kenya is one country with massive potential and only a small fraction of their geothermal potential is currently being tapped. In 2002, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) began work to improve imaging and interpretation of geological data to cut the costs of setting up geothermal wells. Previously, a lot of money was wasted by tapping into sites that were not viable. By 2031, the Kenyan government hopes that at least 27 percent of the nation’s energy will come from geothermal sources. 

Ethiopia is currently taking huge strides in the direction of renewable energy sources. They struggled with costs and the technology for a long time, but the Development Bank of Ethiopia will be contributing $40 million over the next several months with help from the World Bank. The money will cover exploration costs to find the most viable pockets. After locations for plants are found, private investors will fund the plants. The African Development Bank is also working in Djibouti, Tanzania and Kenya to further their progress.