Towards a sustainable Africa—Japan’s plans for geothermal energy development for East Africa

Towards a sustainable Africa—Japan’s plans for geothermal energy development for East Africa

The group of Japanese Parliamentarians and Japanese companies representatives visiting a geothermal site near Asal Lake in Djibouti last December.

Japan wants to play a leading role in the development of clean sources of energy in Africa, namely using geothermal energy. Its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reaffirmed his commitment to developing countries at the UN Conference on Climate Change, COP 21, held in Paris last December. He said “We will take geothermal energy from the center of the Earth and deliver clean electricity to people in Africa.”


Japan also proposed investment in innovative technologies as a way to act against climate change without sacrificing economic growth. By next Spring Japan will formulate the “Energy and Environment Innovation Strategy.” Prospective focused areas will be identified and research and development on them will be strengthened.

At Cop 21, Africa has pledged its support for renewables by announcing the launch of the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI). The goal is to achieve universal access to energy on the continent. Actually, there are 640 million people who don’t have access to electricity, while 7 million have no access to clean alternatives.

In regards to East African countries, the impacts of climate change could be disastrous. Agriculture accounts for an average of 40% of the region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and provides livelihood and substantive income to more than 80% of our citizens. One solution could be the emergence of climate smart agriculture. In Kenya and Ethiopia, farmers are being provided with agro-weather tools, which they use to determine the best time to cultivate crops. Under this project, farmers have seen their income increase as much as 30 %. This illustrates how the use of innovative technologies could help farmers to better assure their livelihood.

Japanese Parliamentarians in the region

Following the COP21, a group of Japanese Parliamentarians led by Mr. Asahiko Mihara, a member of the National Diet, conducted a 5-days visit to East Africa, namely in five countries: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. The objective was to review the development of geothermal energy plants in the region in preparation of the next Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) to be held for the first time in Africa. Prime Minister of Japan, M. Shinzo Abe will announce details on his master plan to develop and finance various geothermal energy projects in the region. To promote the private sector to invest in these projects, there were Japanese companies representatives joining the Japanese Parliamentarian’s visit of the region.

Group of Japanese Parliamentarians led by Mr. Asahiko Mihara, member of the National Diet, on their 5-days visit to East Africa .
Group of Japanese Parliamentarians led by Mr. Asahiko Mihara, member of the National Diet, on their 5-days visit to East Africa .

In fact, Japan is already active in the countries visited by Japanese Parliamentarians. In Kenya, for example, geothermal power now accounts for 51 % of the nation’s installed power capacity. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has been providing support to capacity enhancement to the Kenya’s Geothermal Development Company to train staff on drilling techniques, reservoir evaluation and project management. In Tanzania, there was a newly-signed partnership on December 7th 2015 between Tanzania Geothermal Development Company and Toshiba Corporation to bring their expertise together in future projects development.

Djibouti is another country with at least a dozen potential sites for geothermal power. A recent feasibility study and geothermal exploration project in the Assal Lake region have shown promising results, including financial viability with the appropriate Power Purchase Agreement. Most of the potential sites identified in Djibouti may produce at least 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

Good working relations in Djibouti

The first stopover for the Japanese Parliamentarian’s regional tour was in Djibouti. The President of the National Assembly, Mr. Mohamed Ali Houmed has welcomed them. Discussions were held on various key projects, including the development of geothermal power and waste water treatment. Members of the Djibouti-Japan Parliamentary Association and Djibouti’s Ambassador to Japan, Mr. Ahmed Araïta Ali attended the meeting. With Japan Self-Defense Force’s presence in Djibouti, diplomatic relations have been closer in sharing common views on security, peace and sustainable development.

According to Mr. Mohamed Ali Houmed “Japan’s contribution to the development of geothermal power is most welcomed.” The government of the Republic of Djibouti is committed to reducing its emissions of greenhouse gases by 40% by 2030. Further, it wants promote the use of clean energy to 100% by 2020–already at 65% level. Mr Houmed believes that it’s important to promote a mix of clean energy sources, including the development of geothermal power. He mentioned the government’s recent approval of a 200MW of solar projects to bring clean energy in 25 major villages in the country.

Visit at the Assal Lake’s potential site

During their stay in Djibouti, Japanese Parliamentarians were keen to visit a promising geothermal site, which offers great potential for geothermal power development. Located near Lake Assal, at 100 km from Djibouti town center, it is impressive to have a look at a crack of 1.3 meters following the eruption of the volcano Ardukoba that occurred in 1978 and has duration one week. The thermal energy emanating from this flaw can be felt easily through the intensity of the heat. As a demonstration, someone has placed a cigarette over the crack that has lighted up itself quite easily. This site might well be the first one to be developed in Djibouti.

The use of geothermal energy might be among the cleanest in the world. While the Japanese government is committed to promote geothermal power in Africa, it accounts for a mere 0.3 % of Japan’s total electricity production. Geothermal development in Japan faced several barriers. One of them is environmental as nearly 80 % of Japan’s geothermal resources are located within national parks or protected hot springs, areas designated as restricted “zones” with limits on the type and location of work that can be done in them. Japan set a moratorium on geothermal production within these parks, with heavy restrictions even on light research.

Japanese Parliamentarians in the region

Following the successful UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, one could say that ‘timing’ is important when you have a message to convey. In that context, the Japanese Parliamentarian’s tour of five East African countries has provided more visibility for Japan in respect to its leadership in the energy sector. The level of receptivity for the development of clean energy sources has certainly reinforced the image of Japan as a generous and highly skilled country willing to use its leadership and expertise to sustain African countries’ economic development through the promotion of clean energy. That would be considered a well done Japanese public diplomatic tour in the energy sector.

Geothermal power: pros and cons

As geothermal power plants are a source of untapped renewable energy, they are attracting greater attention on their pros and cons.

Benefits of renewable energy use

  1. Significant Cost Saving:
    Geothermal energy generally involves low running costs since it saves 80% costs over fossil fuels and no fuel is used to generate the power.
  2. Reduce Reliance on Fossil Fuels:
    Dependence on fossil fuels decreases with the increase in the use of geothermal energy.
  3. No Pollution:
    Since no fuel is required so costs for purchasing, transporting and cleaning up plants is quite low.

Disadvantages of alternative energy use

  1. Not Widespread Source of Energy:
    Since this type of energy is not widely used therefore the unavailability of equipment, staff, infrastructure and training pose hindrance to the installation of geothermal plants across the globe.
  2. High Installation Costs:
    To access to geothermal energy, it requires installation of power plants to get steam from deep within the earth. This represents a huge one time investment and skilled manpower is required to be located in isolated area.
  3. Can Run Out Of Steam:
    Geothermal sites can run out of steam over a period of time due to drop in temperature or if too much water is injected to cool the rocks and this may result huge loss for the companies which have invested heavily in these plants.

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