NAIROBI, Kenya -- The restaurant manager shrugs as his customers eat in darkness and his kitchen limps along on half power.
"What they told us in the newspaper last week was that one section of the city would have a blackout for maintenance purposes, but right now the whole city is down," said Nicholas Kyalo, whose restaurant, Garit, serves fast food in the capital's downtown core.
At lunchtime most of the city's electricity is down for the second time in a week. Garit's cooks stand idly as they wait their turn on the only working fryer, and other staffers scramble to start emergency generators before food spoils in the refrigerator.
Blackouts are a regular occurrence in this city and throughout Africa, and the problem is getting worse. Shop owners can be seen dragging out diesel generators and firing them up in the streets. Restaurants have gotten so used to blackouts that they design their menus around them.
"When there is a blackout and you have something go bad, that's a risk and a loss to you," Kyalo said.
Nairobi goes dark not for its lack of coal or natural gas, but for a lack of water. Hydroelectric dams generate more than 60 percent of Kenya's power, much of it coming from a string of dams along the Tana River. During the 2009 dry spell, rationing was the rule and some sections of the city had power for just two days a week. A deepening drought cycle now threatens to spread Kenya's energy crisis beyond its borders to other parts of Africa, especially Tanzania and Ethiopia.
"We in Kenya today are seriously concerned about energy security," conceded Ministry of Finance Secretary Joseph Kinyua during a recent energy conference here.
But power scarcity is also sparking something of a clean-energy movement in Kenya, with possible repercussions for the entire continent.
The government wants to contain the crisis in the long run with geothermal power. But building new capacity is expensive, risky and takes time to develop -- time that Kenya does not have. A growing population and economy are tightening the margin between electricity supply and demand.
So to plug the gap, a handful of alternative-energy projects are in the works -- including what would be Africa's largest wind farm. The projects could help Kenya shrink hydropower dependence from 60 percent to about 35 percent, a level the government feels is safer.
Kenya's population is growing fast, rising from 30 million people to more than 36 million in the past decade.
The water table is also falling, because a deepening drought cycle that could be a result of global climate change but also a consequence of the destruction of forest cover that serves as "water towers" for the Tana and other rivers.
Electricity demand is expanding by about 8 percent a year, but supply is more or less static.
Of the 1,250 megawatts of installed capacity, Kenya manages to deliver about 1,100 MW from aging equipment and shrinking reservoirs. Kenya needs at least 2,000 MW within 12 years, according to government estimates.
Last year, water levels at Masinga Reservoir reached their lowest in 60 years, closing a major dam and taking 40 MW of capacity off the grid. The remaining dams delivered far less electricity than they were designed to. The 2009 drought may have been the worst in recent memory but not the longest, officials say.
"There are times when we had droughts for almost a similar period, but the levels never came down to that extent," said Christopher Maende, chief engineer at Kenya Electricity Generating Co. Ltd., or KenGen, Kenya's largest power generator. Maende fears what an even longer dry spell would do.
The company, whose majority shareholder is the Kenyan government, says it is trying to get another 81 MW of hydropower via ongoing projects, but talk of adding more dams to fill the gap is misguided, other energy developers say.
"They've exploited all the hydro there is to exploit," said Carlo van Wageningen, an official with KP&P Africa, the subsidiary of a Dutch firm that is working to build wind farms here.
Rising price of power
Kenya's water woes are costing the government an enormous amount of money.
To cope, the government has brought in Aggreko PLC, a U.K. firm known for supplying temporary diesel generators to military bases and the Super Bowl. At the height of the crisis, Aggreko was delivering 290 MW via imported diesel fuel, and the company is still supplying roughly 140 MW at a cost of $30 million for 12 months, not including fuel purchases.
KenGen says it plans to add another 120 MW of diesel-thermal to the grid by 2012.
Meeting future needs through diesel generation could cost the government more than $780 million a year. "[That] is not a cost-effective way of transacting business," said Ministry of Finance official Kinyua.
Instead, the government and KenGen hope the windy terrain will provide some early relief.
While the Masinga dam was out of service, KenGen started an experimental wind farm atop the Ngong Hills. The peak of the hills, lying just a few minutes southwest of Nairobi, stands roughly a mile and a half above sea level and is blasted consistently by wind rising from the Great Rift Valley.
Maende, the project manager, said the six wind turbines are delivering about 5.1 megawatts to the grid, on average, not nearly enough to replace Masinga.
"This isn't 40 MW, but it's a good beginning," he said.
Maende and his team aim to more than double the size of the Ngong Hills wind facility during the next two years, but even at completion Kenya's first wind farm will hardly put a dent in its electricity shortfall. Phase two calls for adding 7 more megawatts, and KenGen hopes the wind farm will reach a total of 16 MW by 2012.
And the entire project, while fully funded and on track, also testifies to the pitfalls of building alternative-energy projects in the developing world.
The first wind turbines were erected at a cost of roughly $13.5 million. By 2012, the entire cost will probably balloon to $43.3 million. Bidding was noncompetitive -- the Belgian government supplied most of the lending, but it charged stiff fees and told KenGen which contractor to use, ordering 70 percent of funds be spent in Belgium. Spain has also lent money for the Ngong Hills project but was less stringent on the terms -- 55 percent has to be spent in Spain, and KenGen gets to choose the Spanish firms.
"This is not a very good condition, but that is what we have to deal with for developing countries," Maende said. KenGen officials concede that future alternative-energy projects, whether in the Ngong Hills or elsewhere, will require more financing through foreign channels, most likely tied to aid.
Separately, a group of private entrepreneurs believes it can prove that wind power can be developed at a much larger scale in Kenya and delivered for profit, without relying on bilateral aid agreements.
Van Wageningen and his team at KP&P says it is on track to do so in an area near Kenya's giant Lake Turkana, a deep and long waterway that stretches into Ethiopia. The site is famous for strong winds year-round and seems ideally suited to host the turbines, he added.
If completed in two years, the wind farm would be Africa's largest and represent a milestone in the development of alternative energy on the continent.
KP&P and its partners are courting funds to erect 365 wind turbines on a stretch of land 15 miles south of the town of Loiyangalani, on the lake's southern edges. Each turbine will be capable of generating 850 kilowatts of juice. If completed, the Lake Turkana project would add more than 300 MW of new installed capacity to Kenya's grid, meeting nearly a fifth of Kenya's electricity needs.
"By the time we finish, we should be the fourth or fifth largest single wind park in the world," van Wageningen said.
Getting there is easier said than done. With barely any energy infrastructure in Kenya's north, Wageningen's company is working with the government to build about 266 miles of high-tension transmission lines across the barren landscape to reach the nearest available point to feed Lake Turkana's new power into the grid.
The region is also plagued with violence between nomadic tribes over cattle and grazing rights. KP&P officials have to hire armed security whenever they visit the site, and the company will pay for the national police force to expand its presence there and provide security once the project is completed.
The total cost to investors, including turbines, hundreds of miles of new roads, substations, interconnections, and even a new village to house workers, will be $600 million. The 266-mile grid extension alone will cost $200 million. Thirty percent of the financing has already been lined up through sales of equity, split between KP&P, the South African Industrial Development Corp. and another developer. The plan is to cover the other 70 percent by September and break ground on construction this October.
The Lake Turkana consortium has landed a 20-year power-purchasing agreement with Kenya Power & Lighting Co. that the developers say will cover all expenses and net investors a nice profit. The critical high-tension line extension is being built separately by the government, through a loan secured from Spain.
If all goes well, the Lake Turkana wind farm should be online by October 2012.
KenGen, KP&P's main competitor, is also looking to develop more wind power, taking wind-speed measurements at 14 sites, mostly near Lake Turkana and the town of Marsabit. Kenya's flat, windswept and sparsely populated north holds enormous potential for wind energy, both companies say.
Exploring geothermal, nuclear
But KenGen is much more bullish about geothermal, far and away the most promising alternative to problematic hydropower.
Kenya already generates more than 100 MW each year by tapping into the earth's hot rock. By 2030, Kenya aims to generate about 5,000 MW of geothermal capacity, Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi told reporters earlier this spring.
Even geothermal power is not a panacea, experts warn.
"Geothermal is problematic in that it's quite a long ways away from settlements and therefore requires a lot of power lines and other infrastructure," said Peter McCormick, director of water policy at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
McCormick, who once lived in East Africa, said the obstacles to geothermal are so great in the region that neighboring Ethiopia is choosing to focus on hydropower instead, despite the threat of droughts. The country is seeking World Bank funding to build a more than 1,800-megawattt dam on its Gilgel Gibe River system and considering exporting some of the power to Kenya.
Officials in Nairobi are exploring all options.
Kenya's National Economic and Social Council recommended last month that the country begin generating nuclear power by 2022 to reduce the country's dependence on fossil fuels and dams.
KenGen has hired the New Zealand-based consultancy Sinclair Knight Merz Pty. Ltd. to help prepare tender documents for the construction of a 280-MW geothermal plant near Naivasha. The $1.3 billion project, to be financed by Japan, could be running in 2013 if all goes smoothly, officials predict.
In the meantime, Kenya will continue its reliance on expensive diesel power to meet its economy's needs. It is a burden some Kenyans are nevertheless resigned to.
The alternative is a country where generators line the sidewalks and sandwiches are served in the dark.
"We always argue that the cost of not having electricity," said Pius Kollikho, a KenGen executive, "is much more costly than the cost of having expensive electricity."