Can geothermal energy light up Yemen? [Archives:2006/1010/Health]

December 25 2006

Amel Al-Ariqi
[email protected]

Many national and international environmental officials recently have talked about generating geothermal energy to power Yemen's cities. The term 'geothermal energy' itself is new for most of Yemenis, who are ignorant about how such energy can be generated or used. However, Yemeni citizens mainly doubt whether such power can solve the problem of constant electricity breakdowns in cities. Can geothermal energy light Yemen's rural regions that are mostly plunged into darkness?

Senior hydrologist Noori Jamal explained geothermal energy, which comes from the Greek 'geo,' meaning earth, and 'therine,' meaning heat; thus, geothermal energy is derived from the natural heat of the earth. It's a renewable energy form derived from heat deep in the earth's crust.

High-temperature reservoirs generally are the ones suitable for and sought out for commercial electricity production. Geothermal reservoirs are found in “geothermal systems,” which are regionally localized geological settings where the earth's naturally occurring heat flow is near enough to the earth's surface to bring steam or hot water to the surface.

There are two ways to use this energy to generate electricity: the first is via power plants, wherein dry steam is taken from geothermal reservoirs as it comes from wells and is then routed directly through turbine/generator units to produce electricity.

The second method is via flash steam plants, which use water at temperatures greater than 360 F (182 C) that is pumped under high pressure to generation equipment at the surface. Upon reaching the generation equipment, pressure suddenly is reduced, thus allowing some of the hot water to convert or “flash” into steam, which then is used to power the turbine/generator units to produce electricity.

The remaining hot water not flashed into steam and water condensed from the steam generally is pumped back into the reservoir.

Not a new idea

Both national and international groups conducted preliminary geothermal investigations in Yemen during the 1980s, producing geological descriptions, as well as geochemical and hydrological data. However, Yemen's past division into north and south didn't allow for coherent or unified conclusions and recommendations.

Abdulsalam Al-Dukhain, director of the geothermal project in Yemen, says, “Since we began researching this subject, we were sure Yemen has a huge stock of geothermal energy in the earth, particularly in western Yemen where there are many volcanoes, including Taiz, Ibb, Dhamar and Sana'a.”

“When we searched more intensely, cooperating with some countries that have experience in this field through certain organizations like Florence University in Italy, we attained positive results, which convinced everyone that such energy must be used, particularly to cover the existing gap in electrical power in Yemen,” he noted.

In 2003, the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resource initiated the technical cooperation program, GEOTHERM, whose objective is to promote the use of geothermal energy in partner countries by kicking off development at promising sites. The program supports partner countries worldwide, preferably in areas with high geothermal potential (e.g., active volcanism).

Practical steps and obstacles

This past March, a joint project appraisal mission established by the Ministry of Water and Environment, Yemen's Geological Survey and Minerals Resources Board and the German geosciences institute initiated a joint project called ARGEO to head geothermal energy use in Yemen. Consequently, a project-planning workshop for this joint project was held last month in Sana'a with participants from all three partners.

At the workshop, participants talked about the possible obstacles to geothermal energy use in Yemen, classifying such obstacles as technical, financial, institutional, social and cultural.

Jamal explained, “Participants considered the obstacles the project may face; for example, technical obstacles such as lack of data exchange, lack of laboratory facilities, lack of geophysical equipment and lack of geoscientists. Financial problems included the high initial costs, as well as the cost of drilling. They noted social obstacles such as tribal conflicts, which may lead to stopping the exploration process in some regions, etc.

“However, they also talked about possible measures to overcome such obstacles; for example, pointing to the importance of cooperating with donors and establishing national and local fundraising campaigns and other measures to overcome financial obstacles,” she added.

“Participants also discussed cooperating with international scientific institutes and programs to provide Yemeni staff with required training courses, as well as focusing on the role of awareness among politicians and local citizens to inform them about the importance of such energy,” Jamal concluded.

The workshop was followed by a signed agreement between Yemen and the German geosciences institute to launch a project exploring the use of geothermal energy. Under the agreement, the German side will fund the approximately YR 77 million geothermal project in Yemen.

The German contribution, along with contributions from the Yemeni government and other donors totaling some $2 million, will be allocated for exploratory digging to 2,000 meters in Dhamar. “Work on the project will start at the beginning of 2007,” Abdulsalam Al-Dukhain, director of the project in Yemen, noted.

Various usages

Dr. Mohammed Ali Mattash, scientist and observer of the project, referred to the advantages of geothermal energy use, saying that such energy is environmentally friendly unlike other sources because it doesn't produce any negative environmental affects. Additionally, the cost of using such energy is low and it's more sustainable compared to other energy sources.

Mattash stressed the importance of supporting the project, noting that Yemen can start to apply the project if there's support from the decision makers.

According to statistics, Yemen has the lowest population access to electricity in the region, with only 40 percent of the total population having access, compared to the regional average of approximately 85 percent.

Among the nation's rural population, which is 72 percent of the total population, only 23 percent have access to electricity, which compares unfavorably to 85 percent of the urban population (28 percent of the total) who have access to electricity.

Of the rural population with access to electricity, only half are connected to the national grid system while the rest are estimated to have some access via other sources, typically a diesel generator operating only a few hours in the evening.

“This project will help cover the gap and shortage Yemen suffers in electrical energy,” Mattash said, adding, “Implementing this project isn't easy, but it's not impossible. It's also not a new idea because many countries have been using this type of energy for many decades. For example, in the African Horn, which isn't far from Yemen, six countries have been applying this project, including Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia.”

He pointed out that some countries with the same geological circumstances as Yemen can generate electrical power; for instance, Kenya, whose production reached 400 megawatts. “That's encouraging to carry out this project,” Mattash added.

He said regions selected to conduct the project are Al-Lissi Isbil in Dhamar governorate, Mashkafer in Ibb and Damt in Al-Dhale' governorate. Geothermal energy has various uses, such as in small industries, domestic heating, natural therapy, irrigation and agriculture.

Mattash confessed, “I can't evaluate the quantity of electrical power that can be generated from geothermal energy unless involved sectors complete all of the studies, exploratory digging and results analysis, which will take time and effort, besides financial and technical support. However, if there are good circumstances to generate a thermal field, the expected power will be from 5 megawatts to 200 megawatts.”