• Dr. Dominic Dixon

Using the “internet of things” to mainstream geothermal energy production in Africa

Updated: Aug 8, 2018

The idea of adding sensors to household appliances and connecting them to the internet has become quite popular. By collecting and communicating data, the “internet of things” will - proponents say - change our lives by making every home “smart”. But few people know that the technology can be used to help overcome global problems such as climate change. In East Africa, the “internet of things” will soon be used to make geothermal electricity production more efficient.

Globally, geothermal power plants account for only 1% of electricity production. But in some countries it is a very important energy source. Iceland, for example, uses geothermal power to cover around 25 percent of its power production. The same is true for the Philippines, where 13 percent of national energy production comes from geothermal. The plants use steam and hot water found under the ground to drive turbines which generate electricity. If the water is properly managed and pumped back into the ground, geothermal electricity can be a virtually inexhaustible renewable energy source.

The Great Rift Valley is the continuous geographic trench, approximately 6,000 kilometres in length that runs from Lebanon's Beqaa Valley to Mozambique. In East Africa, the Great Rift Valley has great potential for geothermal power generation which has yet to be fully explored. If its potential to produce 7 to 15 gigawatts of energy was exploited, the electricity generated could power up to 700,000 homes in the region.

“We see that geothermal is becoming prominent,” said Isaac Kiva, Renewable Energy Secretary, Ministry of Energy , Kenya.

The plan is to install sensors in power generation facilities which will detect temperature and vibrations, for example. The data will be analyzed by computers in order to increase the plants’ efficiency. The technology allows companies to remotely monitor and manage the production and distribution of energy in real time.

“We have seen a great leap in technological advances over last couple of decades,“ said Naotsugu Ikeda, from West Japan Engineering Consultants (West JEC).“Computer technologies reduce costs and increase our chances to succeed,” he added.

The technology will also make the plants’ operation much safer. Geothermal power plants are usually built in areas with some tectonic activity, meaning that they are prone to earthquakes. And, along with heat, the plants also often release hazardous chemicals such as mercury, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. In such situations, the possibility of managing the plants remotely has clear advantages for avoiding employees’ exposure to danger.

“In the future, geothermal power plants could be managed by artificial intelligence, increasing their efficiency even more,” said Takeshi Nagasawa, UNIDO Industrial Development Officer.

The new technologies will only be widely adopted if there is a trained workforce available in the region. For this reason, the project foresees investment in training which will, in the long run, also contribute to the development of the region’s renewable energy sector and strengthen the local market.

With all plans in place, UNIDO and JICA already started a first partnership with the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen). The agencies are conducting baseline studies in order to choose the best “internet of things” technologies to use in geothermal power plants in the country.

“Geothermal energy can provide East Africa with reliable access to sustainable electricity, which is essential for the region’s economic development,” Nagasawa added.


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