Wild Winds

Wild Winds

A massive wind-power project aims to take advantage of the consistently strong winds near Lake Turkana, Kenya, to bring electricity to the region.

Grades

5 - 12+

Subjects

Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

For millions of years, fierce winds have ripped across a remote region just southeast of Lake Turkana, Kenya. Now, a consortium known as Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) is preparing to build a massive wind farm—365 wind turbines on 40,000 acres of land—that would use the area's constant winds to generate electricity for the African nation. It would be the largest single wind farm in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Carlo Van Wageningen, LTWP's chairman and one of its founders, says the Lake Turkana site has what he calls "a special wind."

"The wind in this part of the world blows always from the same direction," he says. "It's very consistent and very predictable."

The landscape and geography of the site is what causes the special winds. The area's daily temperature changes create strong, predictable wind streams that travel between Lake Turkana and the desert hinterland.

"Our particular location is between two high-range mountains in northern Kenya," Van Wageningen says. "One is called Mount Kulal, which is about 30 kilometers [18.64 miles] from the east shore of Lake Turkana. And the other mountain is Mount Nyiru, which is on the south side of the lake, close to the southern tip of the lake. Those two mountains and our location between those two mountains create a Venturi effect, because the wind is compressed between these two mountains and we get a high acceleration of that wind."

(The Venturi effect describes the process of a fluid, such as air, speeding up (accelerating) as it moves through a narrow or restricted area. As Van Wageningen explains, in the case of the LTWP wind farm, air (wind) is forced into the narrow space between Mount Kulal and Mount Nyiru.)

Van Wageningen says he has encountered the wind first-hand.

"If you are sleeping in the only lodge that is available there, which is a very basic lodging, it is a very hot place so you have to keep the windows open," he says. "When that wind blows, the curtain at the window literally stands horizontal and even beats against the ceiling. You feel as if the roof is about to take off and be removed from the ceiling. It’s quite an experience."

Van Wageningen says he first heard about the winds in that region of Kenya from Willem Dolleman, a partner in LTWP.

"In the mid '80s, he used to go to that site for sport fishing, and he was always baffled by the amount of wind that was present every time he went," Van Wageningen says.

Dolleman said the wind was so impressive that something should be done with it. But it wasn't until 2004-2005, when oil prices surged and wind technology had improved, that the site was seriously considered for a wind farm. In 2006, wind data were collected. In 2009, discussions with the Kenyan government finally began.

Environment and Ecology

The site appears to be infrequently used by the local population. This is an added benefit, according to Van Wageningen, because a wind farm would not significantly disrupt local inhabitants.

"There is very little nomadic activities," he says. "There are four or five different tribes who cross the land looking for some bushes and things for their goats and camels."

One concern about the LTWP project is that nearby Lake Turkana is a major stopover for migrant waterfowl, including pelicans, flamingos, herons, and storks. Van Wageningen says extensive ornithological studies have shown that the wind farm is 15 kilometers (9.32 miles) away from principal migration routes. In addition, LTWP will employ a full-time environmental specialist to monitor and report on any impacts to birds in the area.

Construction Challenges

The remote location of the wind farm has made one aspect of construction difficult.

"The biggest challenge for us has been resolving—at least from a study point of view—the logistics and the ability of getting that very heavy and bulky equipment to site," Van Wageningen says. "We are going to have to upgrade or build about 205 kilometers [127.38 miles] of road. The nearest power grid connection point is 428 kilometers [265.95 miles] away, so we have to erect a high-tension transmission line for 428 kilometers to connect it to the national grid."

Being far from a developed area has also dictated the kind of equipment used at the wind farm site. LTWP decided to install 365 smaller-sized turbines rather than larger models, for instance.

"We couldn't use larger turbines, because of the logistical complications," Van Wageningen says. "We would not have been able to get them up there."

Van Wageningen believes the wind farm will bring positive change to the Lake Turkana area. The project will employ about 2,500 people, mainly from the surrounding area, during construction. In addition, LTWP is planning on devoting all carbon credits from the project to economic development projects in the area of the wind farm and along the transmission line route.

"We obviously have a very important social responsibility there," Van Wageningen says. "We will devote a considerable amount of our profits as well toward improving the livelihood of the local population."

Van Wageningen says LTWP will help build schools and health clinics in the region, as well as bring electricity to remote villages.

"We are going to build transmission lines to bring electricity to those areas that have never seen electricity before," he says, including the villages of Loyangalani, South Horr, Gatab, Sirima, and Kargi.

Construction of LTWP's wind farm is scheduled to begin in spring or summer 2012. Owners estimate it will be operational in 2014 and ultimately account for 20 percent of Kenya’s total power capacity.

Fast Fact

Renewable Nation
Currently, more than half of Kenya's electricity is generated by hydroelectric plants. Like wind, hydroelectric power is a "clean," renewable source of energy. Most of Kenya's hydroelectricity is harvested from dams on the Tana River.

Fast Fact

They Know Windmills
The Lake Turkana Wind Power project is led by a team of Dutch entrepreneurs and engineers.

Fast Fact

Whipping Wind
The average wind speed at the site of the Lake Turkana Wind Power project is 42.5 kilometers (26.4 miles) per hour.

Media Credits

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Writer
Stuart Thornton,
Editors
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West,
Page Producer
Andy Hess, Andy Hess
Producer
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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