Energy revolution takes off for solar in Kenya

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BY GUY LAWRENCE

Kenya’s interest in renewable energy has grown remarkably in recent years with the government looking to alternative sources of energy to reduce reliance on coal, diesel and kerosene. Low-carbon energy from geothermal and wind energy is already being fed into the national grid, helping to diversify Kenya’s energy mix.

Added to this is the predicted growth in solar energy in Kenya, already a mature technology in many other markets globally. Energy market stakeholders and specialists agree solar could be a major contributor in the global race to for cheap, consistent energy sources that can underpin economic development. The International Energy Agency believes that solar energy could be the top source of electricity by 2050.

Energy firms have set eyes on East Africa’s largest economy and are looking to install large-scale solar projects as a way to boost energy supply for Kenya’s power-hungry businesses.

New commercial and residential solar projects in Kenya are helping to expand electricity inclusion to Kenya’s population, a third of whom live without power in their homes and many more must contend with unstable grid power.

Solar is also helping to reduce energy bills which are so high that they inhibit Kenya’s productivity and deter foreign investors. And high energy bills are unwelcome for the wider population, since businesses’ high operational costs are passed onto consumers through increased inflation, which eats into disposable incomes.

Kenya has been steadfast in adopting alternative renewable energy as it seeks to cut reliance on hydropower, which can be unpredictable as rainfall is variable.

To alleviate the high cost of energy, the government is encouraging investment in renewable energy technologies including solar, geothermal and wind, all of which can help plug the energy shortfall – 2,211MWpis current capacity yet it is predicted that 5,000MW will be needed by 2017 to meet Kenya’s energy needs.

Market pundits now affirm that solar costs have declined sufficiently to make solar cost competitive with grid energy and therefore an economically viable technology that can help keep the lights on for Kenya’s rapidly expanding population. In addition, government and regulators are quickly realising that solar energy can play an important role in powering Kenya’s economic development.

Indeed, Kenya enjoys a favourable location at the equator, which allows it lengthy daylight hours throughout the year, so it’s well suited to solar energy. Relatively quick and easy to deploy, solar electricity is from a sustainable energy source – the sun. Once the cost of the system is paid for, solar energy is free and that’s hugely attractive to any business, especially high energy users like retailers and heavy industries.

The country was named among top emerging markets for clean energy according to the Power Shifts: Emerging Clean Energy Markets report behind Thailand, Bulgaria and Ukraine. The report, covering periods between 2009 and 2013, conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Clean Energy Initiative cites the need to lower the costs of doing business and to increase electricity access for millions of Kenyan people as the main drivers for the massive energy investment by the government.

The Director of the initiative Phyllis Cuttino states in the report that developing countries are prioritising solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies to help reduce energy poverty, power economic progress, enhance national security by reducing imports and preserve the environment.

Also, due to the long life of a solar system – around 25 years – together with falling capital costs and low running costs, solar energy technology can provide power cheaper than retail price power or power from diesel generators.

For example in Kenya, the cost of diesel- produced electricity can exceed $0.30 per kWh and the cost of grid power for businesses is $0.20 per kWh. In comparison, the cost of power from a solar PV system is generally $0.10-0.15/kWh, depending on finance costs and irradiation.

The increasingly favourable economic picture for solar in Kenya has spurred a number of firms to install solar to reduce running costs and enhance their competitiveness. For example, Solarcentury installed a 1 megawatt (MWp) solar farm, the largest solar system in Kenya, for Williamson Tea at its Changoi farm, Bomet County. This system is cutting Williamson Tea’s energy bills by around 30pc. Also, Solarcentury has almost completed the installation of a 860kWp solar carport system on the recently opened Garden City Mall that will reduce energy bills for the retail tenants.

Both of these projects involve solar hybrid systems, a highly innovative energy solution that provides solar energy in the daytime meaning less energy is needed from the grid; and if the grid is down, the system uses solar electricity rather than relying on costly diesel back up. Essentially, the system is able to switch between three energy sources: the grid, solar electricity and diesel back-up. This ensures a consistent energy supply whilst reducing diesel and grid consumption.

With systems these advanced already being installed in Kenya, as well as countries in Latin America, it is only a matter of time before the solar wave spreads beyond Kenya and throughout east Africa. The technology is ready – the evolution is already underway.

(Lawrence is the director of Solarcentury in East Africa)

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