Behind this giraffe and this idyllic scene is Olkaria, a massive geothermal power plant at Hell’s Gate National Park. Behind the escarpment, big plumes of white steam, like billowing cumulus clouds, rise from the horizon and blend in with the sky.
Geothermal production in Kenya is massive- accounting for 5% of the world’s output- and is on the rise. The country sits on a fault that has small rips in the earth, exposing 300C/572F heat through its thin crust along the Rift Valley in the form of steam. The geothermal plants, owned and managed by KenGen, produce an abundance of cheap, clean electricity to power the burgeoning East African economy that is Kenya.
The Rift Valley is also where the majority of the pastoralist Maasai tribes live. One day, in an area along the Rift, a Maasai elder hands a document over to us about 100 pages thick in English. The air is hot, goats are bleating, and children mill about- just an ordinary day. He asks if we can help him to read it. After flicking through the first section, it’s government speak for: we want to build on your land to build a geothermal plant.
It’s never easy to balance the need to tap into clean energy sources while ensuring that people and wildlife are not displaced, livelihoods are not disrupted, and the sacred lands of the Maasai remain intact. The area around the plant looks otherworldly- barren, greyish white from all the sulphur, ash, and dust. While renewable energy is a sustainable way to power countries, it’s a fine balancing act to ensure that precious areas of wilderness also remain protected, for both humans and wildlife.