Cool work with heat in Iceland inspires Africa

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Iceland’s journey from being a developing country until the 1970s, to a modern, vibrant and developed economy owes much to its ability to tap into and develop geothermal energy. Its inspirational example in this regard can be replicated elsewhere, including East Africa, where geothermal potential is abundant. With this in mind, I visited Iceland last week, to assess how its story and unique expertise might provide lessons for others.

Iceland has achieved global leadership in geothermal technology and business in all its manifestations. It has an installed geothermal generation capacity of 665 megawatts, a remarkable achievement for a country with only 300,000 inhabitants. While 74% of Iceland’s electricity is generated from hydropower, about 26% comes from geothermal resources.

Iceland is also a leader in tapping waste heat from geothermal power plants to heat over 90% of its buildings at low-cost. Given the worldwide push for energy access and low-carbon energy solutions, geothermal is an attractive option where it is available.

One of those places is Africa’s vast Rift Valley, which stretches from Djibouti to Mozambique and takes in parts of Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, among others. Lying under this expanse are 14,000 megawatts of geothermal potential—enough to deliver power to 150 million people. Properly exploited, geothermal could deliver at least a quarter of the energy these countries will need by 2030. And this would be a renewable source, clean and climate-friendly. Can Iceland’s experience provide guidance as East Africans seek to exploit their resources? I think it can, and so do the Icelanders.

Kenya has already taken steps towards the geothermal road. In the 1980s, the Kenyans built a geothermal plant with the World Bank support at the Rift Valley site of Olkaria. Last year, the country obtained another Bank credit to expand its geothermal capacity by an additional 280 megawatts to add to the 198 megawatts of installed geothermal capacity. This will help reduce the drought-prone nation’s precarious hydropower, while also helping to meet business and industry needs for reliable, high-quality powerCurrently, of the total installed capacity of 1,473 megawatts, hydropower accounts for about 51%, with geothermal capacity at just 13%.

Iceland is already sharing its knowledge and expertise in geothermal development with several African countries rich in geothermal resources willing to follow Kenya’s example. Based on what I saw in Iceland, where geothermal has completely replaced coal, where geothermal power has given rise to business, investment and even tourism, I look forward to further developing this partnership to enable accelerated realization of this clean and valuable resource.

(Read more on World Bank's work on Renewable Energy here)



Vijay Iyer

Director, Sustainable Energy Department

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