Converting Geothermal Knowledge into Megawatts


  • 2012•02•21

    Pacifica Ogola

    Converting geothermal knowledge into megawatts

    Photo: Luis Patron/UNU

    In this article — the first in a two-part series — Kenyan environmental scientist Pacifica Ogola, a Ph.D. Fellow at the United Nations University Geothermal Training Programme, relates her experience in Iceland and explains why geothermal energy is so important for developing nations like her home country.

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    Iceland, one of the most geothermally active places on earth, has become a global leader in harnessing renewable energy. Geothermal energy heats houses, powers industry and ensures that gushing hot water fills Iceland’s baths and thermal spas all year round.

    “Geothermal Iceland”, the latest documentary produced by the UNU Geothermal Training Programme (UNU-GTP) in Iceland and the UNU Media Centre, explores how UNU is assisting geothermally active developing countries to tap into this energy potential by establishing groups of specialists in geothermal exploration and development. The video tells the story of my friend and colleague from Kenya, Anna Wairimu Mwangi.

    Iceland is the perfect home for a geothermal training programme. Seventy percent of the country’s primary energy comes from renewable sources: 54% from geothermal and 18% from hydroelectricity. This represents the highest use of renewable energy in the world. (Norway is in a distant second at 38%.) Fossil fuels are imported to Iceland only for the fishing and transportation sectors.

    There currently are seven geothermal plants in Iceland, as follows:

    A. Bjarnarflag, in northern Iceland,with
    an electricity generating capacity of 3 MWe.
    B. Svartsengi, on the Reykjanes peninsula,
    with a capacity of 76 MWe.
    C. Krafla, in northern Iceland,
    with a capacity of 60 MWe.
    D. Nesjavellir, in the Hengill area,
    with a capacity of 120 MWe.
    E. Hellisheidi, in the Hengill area,
    with a capacity of 303 MWe.
    F. Reykjanes, on the Reykjanes peninsula,
    with a capacity of 100 MWe.
    G. Husavik, in northern Iceland,
    with a capacity of 1.7 MWe.

    In search of geothermal knowledge: My journey to Iceland

    Like Anna Wairimu Mwangi in 2011, in summer 2004 I embarked on a journey to Iceland where I participated in the six-month-long specialized training offered by UNU-GTP. Participating in the programme gave me the opportunity not only to learn about geothermal utilization, but also to experience the kind of benefits that geothermal energy can bring. Geothermal energy in Iceland has been utilized for centuries, with large-scale commercial use starting in the 20th century.

    Despite the geographical and climatic differences between Iceland and Kenya, the potential benefits of geothermal utilization are cross-cutting, and Kenya can learn much from Iceland. Geothermal energy supplies 26% of electricity generated in Iceland. In addition, this environmentally friendly resource is used to operate over 130 swimming pools year-round (most of which are open to the air) and greenhouses that produce various kinds of vegetables, even in the cold and dark days of the sub-Arctic winter. Geothermal is used to heat 90% of Icelandic homes, and some of the leftover water is used for snow-melting systems that keep streets and walkways free of snow and ice in the winter (thus limiting the need for snow-clearing equipment and personnel). The video brief shows how homes in Iceland rely on geothermal energy for their hot water supply, as well as other innovative uses, including cooking at a specialist restaurant.

    These uses can be transferred to many parts of the developing world with significant impacts on livelihoods and fulfilling many of the Millennium Development Goals — especially in the north rift area of my home country Kenya, where less than one percent of the population has access to electricity.

    During my six months as a trainee at the UNU-GTP in Iceland, I had the chance to see some of these uses of geothermal energy first-hand as well as learn more about the main aspects of geothermal energy exploration and utilization, with practical work and short field excursions.

    Over thirty years of expertise and training

    The UNU Geothermal Training Programme was launched in 1978 by the Government of Iceland and the United Nations University. Over time, it has grown to offer specialized training in areas such as geological exploration, borehole geology, geophysical exploration, borehole geophysics, reservoir engineering, chemistry of thermal liquids, environmental studies, geothermal utilization and drilling technology.

    The founding Director of UNU-GTP is Dr. Ingvar B. Fridleifsson, who appears in the video brief. UNU-GTP has a small staff of six full-time members, but gets support from Iceland Geosurvey (ISOR), Orkustofnun (Iceland’s National Energy Authority under the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, providing advice and undertaking research on energy issues) and the University of Iceland.

    During the period 1979–2011, 482 scientists and engineers from 50 developing countries have completed the annual six-month courses. Of these, 41% have come from countries in Asia, 30% from Africa, 16% from Latin America, and 13% from Central and Eastern Europe. Amongst these have been 89 women (18%). More than 90 professionals have received shorter training (2 weeks to 4 months).

    The largest numbers of graduates have come from China (78) and my home country, Kenya (62). Other countries that are well represented include El Salvador (32), the Philippines (31), Indonesia (29) and Ethiopia (27).

    According to UNU-GTP, 80% of all the trainees have continued working in the geothermal sector for five years or more after training, and the majority have made geothermal their career. I count myself fortunate to be one of that number.

    Taking my knowledge to a higher level

    After completing my course with UNU-GTP, I returned to Kenya and my position with Kenya’s major power company, KenGen. (In the second part of this two-part series, I will explain how Kenya is trying to develop its geothermal resources, and the role that graduates from UNU-GTP are playing by turning their knowledge into megawatts through geothermal energy.)

    Because I wanted to continue to enhance my expertise, in 2009 I travelled back to Iceland to pursue a doctoral degree (through UNU-GTP and the University of Iceland) in environment- and climate change- related aspects of geothermal utilization in the Kenyan north rift geothermal fields.

    Arriving at the end of January 2009, in the middle of the Icelandic winter, I was not prepared for the cold and darkness that welcomed me and, for the first time, appreciated the heat from the geothermal district heating system in Reykjavik.

    In this 2009 photo, you can see me standing in front of geothermal steam from one of the discharging wells in Reykjanes. My friends back home often wondered how I managed to take a photo in the clouds. Well, it is not the kind of cloud they mean — but for me it is close to “cloud nine”, and that is how I feel about Iceland.

  • carol

    Hi all. This is ready for photo-izing (there’s a few to go in body text too) & proofing.

    Bill, can you please let me know when you’re done so I can send them a final-final a few days prior to publication?


  • carol

    This would be ready to go today if you can get the photos done (and move the table to replace the bullet list? was that the intention?). Though I had wanted to send them the (approved by Bill) final prior to publication (due to our experience with IAS) but I think they’d be fine if we send it at the same time.


    • stephan

      Hi carol,

      I guess we are going with the Wider Angel article today, but thanks for mentioning.


  • carol

    The title on this is way too long. For OW2 I was thinking of “Converting geothermal knowledge into megawatts”. Anyone object to using the same here?

  • bill

    Carol, I’ve finished my final edit on this article, and changed the title (and slug) as per your suggestion.

    The only “major” change I made in the text was to change the sentence “This represents the highest use of renewable energy in the world, with only Norway coming close at 38%.” to “This represents the highest use of renewable energy in the world. (Norway is in a distant second at 38%.)”, since I don’t consider 38% to be anywhere close to 72%.

    A question: In the 2nd paragraph under the heading “In search of geothermal knowledge: My journey to Iceland”, it says “Geothermal energy supplies 26% of electricity generated in Iceland.” Earlier the article says “Seventy percent of the country’s primary energy comes from renewable sources: 54% from geothermal …” I realize that “primary energy” and “electricity” are two different things, but I wonder if these percentages (26% vs. 54%) might not confuse some readers.

    Finally, are we going to have featured image, a map + table, an embedded video, and two photos in this article? That’s considerably more graphic content than most of our articles (and I wonder if not too much, comparatively?).


    • carol

      Thanks Bill. I’ll send the final to them now. I’ve deleted the reference to adding the Director’s photo but it would be good if we could use Pacifica’s since she refers to it in the closing. In addition, I could delete the table & just bullet the list of plants if you think it’s still too busy.

      Regarding the “primary energy” versus electricity question. I think the difference is quite broadly known, no? We could also add a hyperlink on “primary energy” just in case?

  • bill

    Hi Curtis, Stephan,

    Was there a problem with this article? It’s ready to publish pending embedding the photo of “Ogola in a cloud of steam” and attaching a featured image. (And adding some keywords; I’ll do that now.)

    Hope we can get it online early Wed. morning.


  • Aqeel

    this is very good idea for developing countries.

  • Mulugeta Asaye

    Pacy, I thank  for the information you shared.