AFRICA’S GREEN ENERGY CHALLENGE: MEGA PROJECTS OR OFF-GRID?

A 310-megawatt wind farm sprouting up in a remote, barren landscape near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya has the clean energy world buzzing — and for good reason.

Africa’s largest wind farm, with 365 towering turbines, is creating more than 500 stable jobs in an impoverished area where goat herding is often the only work available. It will boost Kenya’s electric grid capacity by about 15 percent, at a far lower cost than the imported oil the local utility now uses. And when it begins producing juice next year, it will signal to investors and companies that big clean energy projects like this are viable in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The impact we’re having makes me feel quite proud, frankly,” says Phylip Leferink, general manager of Lake Turkana Wind Power, who was all smiles when I met with him because the 142nd turbine had just been installed.

Megaprojects like these are deeply important for solving sub-Saharan Africa’s colossal energy access challenges at the pace governments there want. But they are not the complete answer. They are often expensive, take years to build and can’t reach everyone. In fact, the US$700 million Turkana project has been in the works for nearly a decade and the exact timeline for finishing the key 270-mile (435-kilometer) transmission line is still in question. Moreover, all of the electricity is going to southern Kenya; none will end up in the power-starved north, where high-polluting kerosene and charcoal are used for cooking meals and getting light.

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