The geothermal market is poised for a massive expansion up East Africa's Rift Valley. The news comes as countries across the world are beginning to plug into geothermal energy as a promising alternative to coal and oil-fired power generation.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) have completed project-testing advanced seismic and drilling techniques in Kenya that have exceeded all expectations.

Wells of steam, able to generate 4 MW to 5 MW of electricity, and one yielding a bumper amount of 8MW, have been hit using the new technology. It could mean a saving of as much as $75 million for the developer of a 70MW installation, as well as reduced electricity costs for generators and consumers, experts estimate.

The results now have paved the way for an international effort in 2009 to expand geothermal up and down the Rift, which runs from Mozambique in the South to Djibouti in the North.

The project, funded by the GEF and involving UNEP and the Kenyan power company KenGen, also could transform the prospects and costs for geothermal elsewhere in the world.

Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and UNEP executive director, says: "Combating climate change while simultaneously getting energy to the two billion people without access to it are among the central challenges of this generation. Geothermal is 100-percent indigenous, environmentally friendly and a technology that has been under-utilized for too long.

"There are least 4,000 MW of electricity ready for harvesting along the Rift. It is time to take this technology off the back burner in order to power livelihoods, fuel development and reduce dependence on polluting and unpredictable fossil fuels," he adds.

Monique Barbut, chief executive officer and chairperson of the GEF, says: "Overcoming the economic and technical hurdles to renewable energy generation is part of our shared responsibility. The work in the Rift Valley is demonstrating that geothermal is not only technologically viable, but cost-effective for countries in Africa where there an overall potential of at least 7,000 MW."

The Project in Kenya

Over the past 3 years, the GEF-funded project has used techniques known as micro-seismic and magneto-telluric surveys and studies for identifying promising new drilling sites, including Olkaria, Naivasha, near the capital Nairobi. Here, a geothermal plant generating 45 MW has been operating for a quarter century. A second plant was brought on stream in 2000 with a capacity of 70 MW.

The main challenge to expansion in Kenya and elsewhere along the Rift has been the risk associated with drilling and the high costs if steam is missed.

The nearly $1million Joint Geophysical Imaging project has aimed to overcome these risks. The old wells in Naivasha generate about 2 MW, whereas the new techniques not only have boosted the chances of hitting steam, but also have pinpointed wells of much higher potential, typically on average 4 MW to 5 MW.

Rift Geothermal Expansion

Two years ago, the GEF Council approved the Africa Rift Valley Geothermal Development Facility (ARGeo) backed with nearly $18 million in funding and involving UNEP and the World Bank.

The project, which will underwrite the risks of drilling in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, now is set to commence in early 2009, and will be able to call on the equipment and techniques piloted by KenGen and UNEP.

The ARGeo initiative has strong support from Iceland, one of the world's leading geothermal economies where more than 90 percent of its electricity comes from “hot rocks” and hydro, as well as from Germany, which also is developing this energy technology.

Kenya's current electricity capacity is around 1,000MW. The country relies heavily on hydroelectric plants, generation systems that have in recent years suffered as a result of low rainfall and water supplies. The country has set itself a goal of generating 1,200 MW from geothermal by 2015.