NGONG, Kenya — From a distance the highlands look like a giant fist resting on the landscape, a series of knuckles forming the peaks of the Ngong Hills. From the top of the escarpment Kenya’s capital Nairobi spreads out to the east, the breathtaking Great Rift Valley to the west.
Maasai herdsmen shepherd their cattle across the hilltop pastures, some dressed in traditional colorful red tartan-print blankets, beads round their necks, earlobes hung with heavy rings, a stick in one hand and leather sandals on their feet.
Every afternoon the gentle morning breeze that sweeps up from the Rift Valley grows into a strong wind and by nightfall it has become a blustering gale. Now, Kenya’s government hopes to harness that power. Next month the country’s first wind farm will open on the top of the Ngong Hills.
For now the six 165-foot tall steel shafts with their 82-foot fiberglass blades are shiny white, stark against the horizon, and motionless.
Jackson Odhiambo, 30, is an IT technician working for a company that hopes to bring fiber optic cables and broadband internet to Kenya for the first time later this year. One recent morning he had driven up to take a look at the turbines that now watch over the hills.
“These will generate power which is good and with wind it doesn’t pollute the air or disturb people with the noise. There are a lot of advantages,” he said.
“Kenyans won’t mind the landscape being changed because there is such a need for cheap power,” Odhiambo went on, adding, “and they look nice.”
Nearby a bunch of cows nibbled at the grass beneath one of the gleaming white towers. Their owner — a herdsman who had walked all the way from neighboring Tanzania with his cattle — had no idea what the strange sculptures were for but thought they looked great, a glimpse of the future.
Hezron Ng’iela certainly thinks the wind turbines are the future. He is the senior projects engineer for wind and renewable energy at KenGen, the state-owned power company responsible for the wind farm at Ngong and, if tests go well, at 11 more sites across Kenya.
“We have in Kenya a lot of wind potential, probably enough to sustain us for a number of years if we exploit it properly,” Ng’iela enthused. “Right now we are gathering data with a view to developing other wind farms in the future.” That will include a further seven turbines on top of the Ngong Hills.
“We are going more and more green,” he said excitedly.
The $15 million pilot project funded by the Belgian government started in April last year. The turbines chosen were the largest ones KenGen could manage. The towers and blades were shipped in from Europe then loaded onto trucks which had to navigate Kenya’s appalling roads until they reached the foot of the Ngong Hills themselves.
From there a precipitous dirt track wiggles its way up to the top. Quite simply bigger turbines on bigger trucks could not have made the journey. “The limiting factor is our infrastructure,” Ng’iela said.
The blades begin to turn when wind speeds reach 13 feet per second, at 40 feet per second the turbines are running at maximum capacity. If the wind blows too strong — say 82 feet per second — the turbine shuts down.
Once operational each of the turbines will produce up to 850 kilowatts of power, meaning another 5.1 megawatts will feed into the national grid. It may not sound like much but in rural Kenya where electricity consumption is low each turbine can produce enough power to supply as many as 1,000 homes.
Kenya — like much of Africa — is facing a looming power crisis with regular power cuts becoming more and more frequent. Today in Kenya potential production slightly outweighs demand but that will change fast.
If everything works at full capacity, Kenya’s various hydroelectric, geothermal and thermal plants produce 1,200 megawatts while Kenya’s citizens use 1,050 MW. But with global warming causing the rains to fail with depressing regularity and deforestation also reducing the flow of rivers, hydropower generation is down.
“Kenya is facing a crisis of power generation,” said Christian Lambrechts, program officer at the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi, “and electricity is key to economic development.”
Demand is increasing by around 6 percent per year partly thanks to population growth and partly because of efforts to expand the national grid. The government hopes to connect another 150,000 homes a year to the network. In some rural areas only one in five homes have electricity.
It is that desperate need that perhaps explains why Kenya’s first wind farm being built on top of one of its natural wonders has not caused an outcry. Wind farms in Europe are frequently greeted with a not-in-my-backyard attitude. But here, Ng’iela said, “because of the shortages people want electricity, so they welcome this.”