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Kenya leads the charge to biorefining in Africa

East African nation studies options to develop low-carbon fuels.

East African nation, Kenya, has made leaps towards a low-carbon future, aiming to become an African biofuels leader under plans which include turning a government-run refinery in Mombasa into Africa’s first major biorefining hub. The Kenya Petroleum Refineries Limited facility, which was shut down in 2013, will be converted to process used vegetable oils from low indirect land-use change crops. The anticipated conversion is expected to take around three years and has the potential to create 400 long-term jobs.

Authorities hope the biorefinery could produce at least 250,000 tonnes of sustainable aviation fuel and hydrogenated vegetable oil diesel a year, both for domestic markets and export. Demand for these products is expected to increase as the aviation and heavy-duty transport industries seek to switch to low-carbon fuels. Both are considered hard-to-abate sectors that cannot easily reduce carbon emissions by switching to electric power sourced from renewable generation. In Europe, the European Commission has proposed that sustainable aviation fuels should account for at least 5 per cent1 of aviation fuels by 2030.

Giuseppe Ricci, Chief Operating Officer for Energy Evolution at Italian energy multinational Eni, says the company is working with Kenyan institutions and Mombasa refinery personnel on a feasibility study that will define the schedule for the biorefinery conversion. “Negotiations with Kenya’s institutions are well underway,” he says.

He adds that the Mombasa refinery’s location on the coast makes it the ideal place from which to eventually supply other countries with refined products. “What’s more, the conversion of an existing refinery, compared with building a new biorefinery from the ground up, will reduce the amount of time it would take to be operational and cut the cost as well.”

According to Ricci, Eni is also looking at how to grow the raw materials to produce biofuels from scratch. “We are evaluating both the potential feedstock for the biorefinery and the sustainability of raw materials that do not compete with the country's food and feed chain,” he explains. “The assessment aims to identify hundreds of thousands of hectares for target areas where crops can be established.”

Starting next year, Eni will begin collecting used cooking oil from Kenya as feedstock for biorefining operations in Italy. The company is developing hubs to collect thousands of tonnes of oil from schools, hotels and restaurants in Kenya’s five largest cities and four coastal tourism centres. Feedstocks from the country will be sent to biofuel refineries in Venice and Sicily. These can currently process 1.1m tonnes a year, but Eni plans to double this capacity by 2024 and to be processing up to 6m tonnes by 2050.

Kenya’s biofuel plans, supported by President Uhuru Kenyatta, also include the development of a bioethanol plant and the advancement of international partnerships and financing. The proposed bioethanol plant, for which a timeline has yet to be announced, would have a production capacity of up to 50 kilotonnes a year. The plant would take agricultural waste and turn it into bioethanol that could be blended with petrol to improve performance and cut carbon emissions.

The Kenyan government is now working with Eni on choosing a bioethanol plant site in the west of the country. This region has the benefit of being home to a number of sugar mills that produce agricultural waste that can be used as feedstock. With the country importing up to 2m tonnes of petrol a year, the bioethanol plant would help reduce prices, improve security of supply and contribute to the decarbonisation of the transport sector. Excess production could be exported or used to replace fossil fuels used for domestic cooking.

Kenya is already an African leader in renewable energy production. Hydro power and geothermal each make up around 29 percent of the country’s generation capacity, according to US Aid2. After bringing a 50MW solar plant online at the end of 2019, its Ministry of Energy revealed that renewables made up more than 90 per cent of the power mix.

Although its biofuels plans are at an early stage, Kenya’s work in this sector could be of critical importance to energy transition in the region, giving the country a chance to share the spoils of the global race to reduce carbon emissions.

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1 https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/refueleu_aviation_-_sustainable_aviation_fuels.pdf

2 https://www.usaid.gov/powerafrica/kenya

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