UTEP Professors And Alumni Help To Power Kenya With Volcanic Energy

Nov 20, 2012

A group of University of Texas at El Paso professors and alumni are working to help power Kenya with volcanic energy.

“[Kenya has] a severe shortage of resources for energy,” said Steven Harder, D.Sc., a UTEP research professor of geological sciences who is helping locate magma chambers for the Geothermal Development Company (GDC). “So it’s important for them to find more sources of energy or they’re not going to be able to develop their economy.”

Led by Aaron Velasco, Ph.D., professor of geological sciences, UTEP faculty are currently helping the GDC map the subsurface around volcanoes in the Great Rift Valley to locate magma chambers and generate steam power.

The team is conducting two separate experiments to locate the chambers.

Harder and Galen Kaip, special research associate of geological sciences at UTEP, are setting off explosions to create miniature earthquakes around the volcanoes Paka and Silai. Using multiple seismometers, devices that measure ground movement, the team is able to gauge where waves travel faster and slower in the ground, and thus find the chambers.  

Another way to locate geothermal prospects is by studying a volcano’s natural tremors and earthquakes. Velasco is doing so around Menegai and has set up multiple seismometers to record data.

Both projects are based on the concept that waves travel at different speeds through different mediums. After locating the magma chambers, the GDC will drill down to reach the chambers, and collect the steam for power generation.

The GDC was established by the Kenyan government to help speed up the development of geothermal resources to generate electricity for the country. CEO Silas Simiyu, Ph.D., and General Manger Peter Omenda, Ph.D., are both UTEP alumni who earned doctoral degrees in geological sciences during the 1990s.

“By 2030, we want to produce 5,000 megawatts of power,” Omenda said. “It’s a long way away, but if everything goes well that will be able to power about five million homesteads.”

In 2010, the country had a population of more than 40 million – 77 percent of which did not have access to electricity. In addition, the drought-prone country relies heavily on hydropower via dams and waterfalls – making power shortages, brownouts, and blackouts quite frequent.