Africa’s Great Carbon Valley — And How to End Energy Poverty

“Welcome to the gates of hell,” said James Irungu Mwangi, Executive Director of the Dalberg Group, as he opened his recent TED Countdown presentation, speaking to the seated audience in front of a screen projecting one of the distinct geological attractions at Hell’s Gate National Park. In this case, ‘hell’ signifies potential, not doom. That’s because the small park in Naivasha, Kenya, near Nairobi could hold the key to solving one of the most complex issues around climate change: how to scale new carbon-sequestering technologies that pull greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, while also investing in renewable power grids in places that don’t already have a substantial fossil-fuel footprint.

The Dalberg leader and founder of the Climate Action Platform for Africa (an initiative incubated with Dalberg Catalyst) was one of just eight speakers invited to grace the New York stage in June at the TED Countdown Session, TED’s climate action initiative, to address both climate challenges and innovative solutions to revert the planet’s perilous warming path.

In his 15-minute talk, James pointed out that while Africa’s reputation may be one of energy poverty, Hell’s Gate—and Kenya’s entire Rift Valley—is uniquely suited to transforming it to one of wealth. “We need to shake the old tired idea that Africa is a poor, hapless, helpless climate change victim,” he said. “Instead Africa and its people have the potential, they can, and they should, be the world’s climate vanguard.”

Simply cutting emissions and intervening to aid in Mother Nature’s own recovery are no longer enough to protect the long term health of the planet, which is why engineered technologies to supplement those efforts are necessary to make actual headway in the climate fight.

The three most common approaches are: direct air capture (DAC), bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and biomass carbon removal and storage (BiCRS), and although these technologies are promising, they are making a mere dent in the levels of carbon removals necessary to stave off a full-fledged climate disaster. To date, engineered removals have pulled some 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; we need to be at 100 million tons per year by 2030 to be truly effective.

And scaling these technologies won’t be easy. As a reference point, the new Orca DAC plant in Iceland that came online last year uses green geothermal energy to capture carbon dioxide, dissolve it into water and inject it into porous basalt rock underground, where a chemical reaction turns it into a stable solid that can stay underground for centuries. This rendering process requires 2 to 3 megawatt hours of energy per ton to complete; multiply that by the 100-million-ton goal and the result is daunting. To keep moving forward, all the energy required to run future DAC plants also needs to be renewable. Scaling technologies like DAC in places that are still trying to curtail fossil fuel emissions is futile, James added.

We must identify places in the world with three defining characteristics: the right geophysical conditions, plenty of renewable energy potential and no current proximate emissions that renewable energy could be used to displace.

Re-enter Hell’s Gate National Park. Its Olkaria Geothermal Energy Plant already provides one-third of all of Kenya’s electricity, and although it’s one of the largest geothermal plants in the world, that barely scratches the surface of what it could be. There are 10 gigawatts of geothermal resource in Kenya ready to be tapped, as well as an abundance of wind and solar energy. All that’s missing is investment. Right now, more than a quarter of the population in Kenya still doesn’t have access to basic electricity because it’s so expensive. The high costs are due to the lack of large-scale industry demand (consumers have to pay for unused capacity); the lack of industry demand stems from the high costs to run manufacturing operations and other systems.

Establishing DAC plants throughout the Rift Valley could solve this frustrating feedback loop and implement vital technologies for humanity’s future, all at once. There’s space and capacity to scale without the trade-offs that are necessary in other parts of the world, and the new industry would bring investment that could expand Kenya’s renewable energy potential, thus providing a critical resource to millions of Kenyans.

“Introducing these new and exciting technologies on the continent with the world’s youngest and fastest-growing workforce could potentially activate their imaginations and their energies towards becoming climate innovators and solution builders themselves, basically building an army from the world’s largest workforce to solve the world’s biggest problem,” James said.

It’s a concept he calls “The Great Carbon Valley,” one way a continent that has contributed the least to climate change can deliver the most impact in fighting it, and potentially even become the first continent in the world to go substantially net-negative along the way. The prospect alone makes the ‘gates of hell’ worthy of the world’s attention as it embarks on its greatest energy transition.

Watch James’ entire TED Talk here.

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