Google’s newest renewable energy investment: Africa’s biggest wind farm

Source: By Chelsea Harvey, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, October 22, 2015

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Google has made a reputation for itself in recent years as a major investor in renewable energy. And, the company announced its newest investment: a wind power project in Kenya that, when completed, will be the continent’s biggest wind farm.

The Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, which broke ground in July, is expected to generate 1,400 gigawatt-hours of power per year, or 15 percent of the country’s electricity consumption, according to a fact sheet from Vestas, one of the project’s co-developers. The project will include 365 wind turbines, spread along the shore of Kenya’s Lake Turkana.

Vestas, a global wind energy company, will be in charge of installing the turbines (likely early next year) and will also provide maintenance for the farm for 15 years. Currently, Vestas owns a 12.5 percent stake in the project — and Google’s investment will be to buy this stake once the project goes online, which is planned for 2017.

The project is billed as the largest single private investment in Kenya’s history — and it’s expected to break new ground in other ways as well. According to Vestas, the project will be one of the most efficient wind farms in the world, operating with a capacity factor (its actual energy output, as opposed to its potential energy output) of 60 percent, whereas many other wind farms have a capacity factor of less than 35 percent.

The capacity factors for wind farms tend  to be variable because the wind is so unpredictable in many places, picking up and slowing down. Lake Turkana is an ideal location because the wind blows consistently, with speeds topping  24 mph, according to Vestas.

It could be big news for Kenya, as the project is expected to save the country more than $113 million per year in imported fuel costs. Currently, the country relies heavily on hydropower and fossil fuels. According to the International Energy Agency, solar cells produced one gigawatt-hour of power in Kenya in 2012, and wind produced 15 gigawatt-hours. So the new plant will add substantially to the country’s renewable energy production.

As for Google, investment in the plant is just the latest in a string of recent renewable energy investments. In Africa, the company has  invested in the Jasper Power Project, a solar plant in South Africa. Other wind investments have included farms in Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and other parts of the country. And Google also recently launched its Project Sunroof, an online tool that allows users to search their address and find out how much space they have available for solar panels, how many hours of usable sunlight they could generate and how much money they could save by switching to solar. Altogether, the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project makes Google’s 22nd renewable energy investment.

The announcement comes at a time when world leaders are still busy preparing for the UN’s annual climate conference, which will take place in Paris at the beginning of December. At the conference, they’ll attempt to finalize an international accord to combat climate change. Throughout the past year, nations around the world have been releasing their strategies to cut carbon emissions ahead of the conference, and earlier this month, 51 countries unveiled their climate action plans — but experts say it’s still not enough. Climate activists are calling for more aggressive mitigation strategies, and increased investment in renewable energy — designed to accompany a global effort to cut down on the burning of fossil fuels — is one important strategy.

So the announcement is a timely reminder that large-scale investments in wind farms, as well as solar plants and other forms of renewable energy, don’t just benefit the countries they directly serve: They affect the future of the planet as a whole.