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Occasional  Paper 12: The Socio-Economic and Environmental Impact of Geothermal Energy on The Rural Poor in Kenya - The Impact of a Geothermal Power Plant on a Poor Rural Community in Kenya

By

Mr. Nicholas Mariita Bw’Obuya


Executive Summary

Kenya is the first country in Africa to tap geothermal resource for energy. The geothermal resource lies beneath the vast East African Rift Valley.  The present production area of Olkaria covers 11 km2 and has an estimated steam for 400MW years.  A total of 53MWe of electricity is currently being generated from geothermal steam in the Olkaria area.  This accounts for about 5.1% of the nation’s electricity consumption.  A total of 301MW is planned for generation by the year 2009.

The geothermal resource occurs in an area that has environmentally sensitive areas.  The Olkaria field is in the middle of a game park and highly productive farms.  Economic activities in this area have attracted a large human population.  The exploration and exploitation of this resource should therefore be carried out with minimum negative impacts on the environment and the local communities.  This study is designed to assess the socio-economic and environmental impacts brought about by the development of the Olkaria East geothermal plant, which has been in operation for the last 20 years.

The 15 years of the first power plant operation at Olkaria has shown that with proper management, geothermal energy production can go hand in hand with conservation.  Analysis of geothermal hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide emissions shows that they are below the World Health Organisation harmful levels.  Geothermal brine cation and anions concentrations from the present geothermal wells in Olkaria are not very high to warrant environmental risk.  Heavy metal concentrations in potable water are below acceptable levels and therefore geothermal fluid may not be hazardous to the environment.  Noise levels vary from 32-44dB(A) away from the station and 50-60dB(A) around the power station.

Attempts have been made not to fence off migration paths of animals by burying pipes underground or elevating them to allow free movement of animals.  Sensitive habitats for animals and birds such as breeding, feeding and resting sites have also been preserved.

No adverse impacts by the project on the local communities have been reported.  Proper operational management by the geothermal plant operators is in place to stem any possible conflict with the surrounding community.  This includes fencing off the plant premises to prevent injury to the community and their animals, and the holding of regular meetings between the project management and the community.  KenGen, the power utility has made some attempts to provide the community with infrastructures such as piped water, transport, shops and schools.  In addition, there has been increased sale of souvenirs to tourists at the cultural centre, and creation of a market for their animal products.

However, there are a few concerns that have been raised by the Maasai community.  Out of the 500 people employed at the plant, only seven (7) are from the local Maasai community.  This is equivalent to 1.4% of the total workforce at the plant.  These seven comprise of one copy typist, one clerk, one driver, one office messenger and three watchmen.  The community felt that the project should have economically empowered them by providing more employment opportunities.

The study concludes with the following recommendations:

  • Exploration, exploitation, environmental and cultural issues inherent in geothermal energy should be identified and evaluated in advance.

  • Surface waters from well testing, disposal pipe; leakage and chemical stabilization ponds should be disposed by re-injection into appropriate deep reservoirs.

  • The project should consider shifting more of its operations to the side of the game parks, initiate diagonal drilling, put up high hoops, paint the pipes green, and plant more indigenous trees as camouflage, in order to maintain the natural appearance and beauty of the park and its immediate surroundings.

  • The findings of a study of the animal migratory routes should be taken into account in the design of the steam gathering system and power plant layout to avoid blocking key migratory routes.  In addition, KenGen should pursue the option of burying pipes where routes are crossed.

  • KenGen should, in collaboration with KWS and OrPower 4, establish a long-term park restoration endowment fund that will rehabilitate Hell’s Gate Park after their operations come to an end.

  • Above 85 dB of noise, the allowed exposure of workers should not exceed 8 continuous hours.  This will require greater workers rotation on shifts, use of hearing protection and rest booths.

  • Continuous monitoring program for noise and hydrogen sulphide emission levels should be maintained.  In addition, the project needs to periodically contract an independent person or group of persons to evaluate their environmental management systems according to the ISO 14001 and 9001 certificate principles and guidelines.

  • KenGen should find ways of assisting the neighbouring Maasai community acquire electricity.

  • KenGen should provide more job opportunities to the local Maasai community.

The power utilities involved should participate in community development activities such as infrastructure development to improve the community’s standards of living.  In addition, community members need to be educated on general safety measures.

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