The problem with William Ruto’s climate strategy for Kenya

Ruto’s key idea has been to present Kenya as a destination for investments in energy-intensive technology at a time when utilities in the United States and Europe are starting to panic over the explosion in demand for power for electric vehicles and data centers. But fulfilling his vision of Kenya as a clean technology powerhouse will test the limits of the country’s delicate grid and could leave Kenyans with less reliable power and higher electricity bills.

As the United States and Europe struggle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power grids, Kenya is already far ahead: between hydroelectric dams, geothermal energy and onshore wind power, 90% of the country’s energy is carbon-free. carbon emissions, making it one of the countries in the world. cleaner grates. The government estimates there is still enough untapped geothermal energy (the country sits on a tectonic divide) to power Kenya five times over. Historically, it hasn’t had much to do with all that energy other than its own domestic uses, due to the extreme cost and complexity of building international networks.

But a number of new ways to effectively export clean energy in different forms are emerging. Build a huge data center and clean energy becomes bytes, invaluable to tech companies like Microsoft trying to harness energy-intensive AI without a huge carbon footprint. Build electrolyzers and convert clean energy into green hydrogen, which can be turned into liquid ammonia and sent to factories in Europe or Asia to replace natural gas. Build machines to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, run them on clean energy, and sell expensive carbon removal credits to high-emitting foreign companies. Kenya is pursuing all of the above. The new White House deal also cites electric vehicle supply chains, suggesting Kenya could use its clean energy for battery manufacturing as the United States works to diversify its electric vehicle hardware supplies away from China.

Still, “the thesis of bringing all this infrastructure (to Kenya) is quite flawed,” said Rose Mutiso, research director at the Energy for Growth Hub think tank. Domestic energy prices in Kenya are high and blackouts are common. This is because the country’s grid has not evolved enough to keep up with the strong penetration of variable renewables, Mutiso said, meaning that although power generation capacity on paper appears to meet or exceed needs of the country, in practice energy is often not enough. sufficiently available at the right time and place. The Byzantine structure of the country’s energy market also tends to distribute higher-cost wind power before lower-cost geothermal, she said.

The upshot is that without much more investment in the grid and large-scale batteries, deep-pocketed tech companies could effectively take on locals for affordable, reliable power. As the new U.S.-Kenya energy partnership takes shape, Mutiso said, it is essential to include transparent reporting standards on energy contracts and other measures to ensure that the majority of benefits actually go to average Kenyans and not to the country’s elites or foreign investors.