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What can geothermal power do for East Africa?

E-IPER students show that many of the best geothermal sites in Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania could be cost effective to develop for energy.

Tim Latimer and Nathan Ratledge
An EIPER collaboration grant enabled Tim Latimer left, MSMBA 17, and Nathan Ratledge, PhD 21, to study the potential for expansion of geothermal electricity in East Africa. Photo by Toni Bird.

Working as an engineer in the South Texas oil fields in 2011, Tim Latimer, MS-MBA ’17, encountered an area that produced much hotter fluids than usual. As he researched adjustments he could make to his equipment to cope with these high temperatures, he stumbled into the world of geothermal energy.

A small but steady contributor to the global power mix for decades, geothermal “is a clean, sustainable resource with the potential to expand energy access in many areas of the world,” says Latimer, who knew immediately that he wanted to study it further. “I realized that a lot of the new technology I was using in the oil and gas industry could transfer and be very helpful to the geothermal industry.”

He enrolled at Stanford for his MBA so he could simultaneously pursue an MS through the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) and engage with the world-renowned Stanford Geothermal Program.

At E-IPER, Latimer met Nathan Ratledge, PhD ’21, whose research focuses on clean energy deployment in least developed countries. A former executive director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency with deep experience working on clean energy projects, Ratledge was keen to address the dearth of high quality research on geothermal resources in Africa.

The students applied for one of E-IPER’s collaboration grants, which are reserved for research projects that bring together the complementary strengths of the program’s MS and PhD students. They wanted to test an idea: that recent advances in technology and falling costs, new mapping and resource assessment capabilities, and the right kind of international investment could help unlock the geothermal potential of East Africa.

Can Kenya’s success be replicated?

Five countries—Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya—sit atop the East African Rift, one of the world’s richest geothermal resources. Although the geology knows no borders, only Kenya has successfully harnessed its power, gleaning more than 25 percent of its electricity from geothermal.

With support and guidance from Professors Roland Horne (energy resources engineering), James Sweeney (management science and engineering), and Stefan Reichelstein (business), the two E-IPER students traveled to East Africa in 2017 to assess whether Kenya’s success could be replicated elsewhere. They visited active geothermal operations in Kenya and met with government officials, aid agencies, NGOs, energy professionals, and investors in all five countries situated on the Rift.

Tim Latimer and Kenyan engineer Esther Nyaambura
Kenya Geothermal Development Company Engineer Esther Nyambura showed Tim Latimer the company’s direct-use demonstration facility, where geothermal energy heats a greenhouse and powers a laundry facility. Photo courtesy of Tim Latimer.

Many of their questions focused on barriers to investment. “Getting geothermal projects up and running is risky and expensive,” says Latimer, who has since founded a company focused on geothermal energy. “We wanted to understand what level of scale would be required to bring down the cost curve if a country or financing organization were to make an investment in getting the industry started.”

The successful expansion of geothermal power throughout East Africa would provide far more than sustainably produced electricity. Geothermal resources in the region are typically found in sparsely populated areas rarely connected to a central grid. Geothermal plants, which must be built atop the resource, “can actually pull the grid towards these rural communities,” says Ratledge. “That opens up a whole new dimension when it comes to addressing energy access.”

Geothermal is also particularly suitable for powering the commercial and industrial sectors, causing economic development to follow quickly.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how to provide electricity and how to grow local economies,” says Ratledge. “Geothermal does both.”

Reducing the risk for investors

The students used the Department of Energy’s intricate Geothermal Electricity Technology Evaluation Model to evaluate the factors they assessed in Africa, concluding that three of the four most likely geothermal sites in Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania are actionable from a cost perspective.

Their research also suggests that increased funding from international aid agencies could catalyze meaningful action by financing the higher risk stages of a given geothermal development, including exploration and assessment. Valuable data gleaned from these early steps would clear the way for governments and private companies to complete the lower risk stages of resource development and plant construction.
“Geothermal is less known and more complicated than other energy resources, but investors are eager to get into this space and to make a difference on energy access and sustainability,” says Latimer, noting that more than 650 million people in sub-Saharan Africa still lack access to basic electricity.

“Our goal is to provide a road map that will direct investment to where it can have the most impact.”

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