Kenya Slowly Warms to Solar As Two New Solar Projects Launch

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In April 2014, Kenya connected its first solar project to its grid. This was done at Strathmore University in Nairobi. Even though it was very small at 600 kilowatts, it produced exciting headlines in the news. Why has Kenya been so slow with larger scale solar projects? It is not because the country isn’t innovative, as the largest source of electricity in Kenya is geothermal and the Lake Turkana Wind Farm is the largest wind farm in Africa. Moreover, Kenya has had stand-alone solar panels in use for residential applications for a long time. I bought my own 150-watt panel twelve years ago as a backup source of power when the grid goes down which happens a number of times each week.

First of all, check out Kenya’s solar resources. As can be seen in the map, the equator runs through the middle of the country which extends 4 degrees north and south of the equator. This gives the country an average of 4.5 kWh per square meter of solar potential. Moreover, since 80% of the country is arid or semi-arid, there is a lot of land available for solar farms.

In November 2018, Kenya commissioned its first commercial-scale solar power plant, the 54.6 MW Garissa Solar Power Plant. It will sell its electricity to Kenya Power, the major distributor of electricity in Kenya. This solar farm is now the largest in East and Central Africa. It will supply about 2% of Kenya’s electricity needs which currently hovers around 2,370 MW.

The success of the Garissa Plant has led two the development of other solar projects which are now under construction. A new 40 MW project in Eldoret, near my home, and a 50 MW project in Nandi County. I expect that this will be the beginning of many more solar projects connected to the grid. First they can be done quickly and the price is relatively cheap for Kenya at 5.5 cents per kWh. For comparison, geothermal power is 8 cents per kWh, the Lake Turkana Wind Farm at 8.5 cents, the planned coal power plant at 7.5 cents, and diesel generators at 20 cents or higher. Only old hydropower at 3 cents per kWh is lower, but this is because they were mostly built in the 1980s and have long since paid off their capital costs. Any new hydropower is going to be much higher and with excess capacity now in Kenya, all future hydropower developments have been put on hold.

Breaking news: On Tuesday, June 12th, Kenya’s Energy Principal Secretary, Joseph Njoroge, announced that, due to excess capacity in Kenya, the 1,050 MW Lamu Coal Power Station and a planned 150 MW gas peaker plant will be delayed 4 or 5 years until electricity demand increases. In my opinion these two plants will never be built. Hurrah, a win for our side.

Below are some other recent solar energy developments in Kenya.

As can be seen from the above map, 80% of Kenya is very thinly populated. While the population of the country has grown significantly since the map was created, the major population centers in the south continue to host the majority of Kenyans. The vast stretches of largely unpopulated land make it very hard to supply grid electricity to the more remote parts of the country. The Rural Electrification & Renewable Energy Corporation (REREC) which is responsible for these vast regions has a target of supplying solar electricity via 151 mini-grids connecting 35,000 homes and 1.96 million stand-alone connections.

There are more than 33,000 primary schools in Kenya. The Kenyan Government has plans to supply tablets to all these schools, implying that they need to have electricity to charge the tablets. REREC plans on connecting all schools to the grid where possible, but will also supply solar panels to schools where grid electricity is not economically feasible. Since the schools will largely be using the electricity during the daytime, I would think that little or no battery backup is needed.

According to REREC webpage, it will also be providing solar electricity to many staple businesses within the country including: all off-grid public secondary schools, trading centers, health facilities, polytechnic schools, administrative offices, churches, mosques, coffee factories, tea buying centers, and water projects including bore holes currently running on diesel generators.

Similar to the United States and Europe, Kenyan-based companies are finally beginning to embrace renewable energy via contracts with energy projects. Unilever, the giant food and consumer products company, has a tea factory in Kericho, Kenya. It has just signed a 15-year contract with a company called Cross Boundary Energy for the production from a 619 kilowatt solar plant. While small, the hope is that the contract is just the beginning of a much larger trend from companies across Kenya.

For security and safety reasons, many small towns in Kenya have begun installing street lights. Some are still using grid electricity. The problem with this is that the grid regularly goes offline at night several times per week. When the grid is down, the town goes dark. To solve this, many towns have decided to install solar street lights. These consist of a 24, 30, or 60-watt solar panels, LED lights, and a small battery. They range in cost from $170 to $750 plus the post and installation. Similar to why anyone would now buy an ICE car, I don’t see why anyone would buy anything but a solar street light – including in places like the United States.

What about electric vehicles? The first electric vehicles was believed to have first arrived in Kenya in late 2016. It was a used 2012 LEAF and was acquired for $6,000. Most of the cars sold in Kenya are second-hand imports from Japan or Dubai. At the time, there were no public charging stations, but Kenya, as a former British colony, already has 240 volt electricity, which can give a reasonable charge from any outlet.

In November 2018, a Finland-based ride-sharing firm named Nopia Ride, began importing used LEAFs for $17,000 to sell to their drivers. Since gasoline is well over $4.00 per gallon and the price fluctuates every month, drivers can realize significant savings on their fuel costs and end up making 30% to 50% more income with an electric vehicle.

Since starting imports of EVs, Nopia Ride has installed the first public charging station in Kenya at Two Rivers Mall in Nairobi. the company plans to import hundreds more LEAFs during 2019 for a total of 1,500 by the end of 2020. They will also begin installing further charging stations in Nairobi. Clearly, an electric car with a range of only 100 miles is not going to be leaving the city very often, if at all. As a right-hand drive country, when will the first Tesla Model 3 be imported to Kenya? After all, they are now being produced by Tesla with the first shipments having already landed in the UK

On January 9, 2019, after six years with Tesla, Kenyan national Charles Mwangi, resigned from his post as Senior Director of Engineering at Tesla. Mwangi had risen quickly through the ranks at Tesla, managing 400 engineers when he resigned. According to Mwangi, “The start-up I am joining is still under the radar, but I couldn’t be more excited to be joining this team.”

There are an estimated 600,000 motorcycle taxi drivers in Kenya. In my little town of Lumakanda alone, there are hundreds of these young drivers offering rides to customers. It is a common occurrence to see pollution gushing out of the tailpipes of these cheap motorcycles from India, China, Thailand, and elsewhere. On Lake Victoria in Kisumu County in western Kenya, a pilot program has been started to import 50 electric motorcycles from the Chinese electric motorcycle company, TAILG Group. The pilot is part of the United Nations Environment project, “Integrating Electric Two- and Three-Wheelers into Existing Urban Transport Modes in Developing and Transitional Countries.” The project is funded by the German government. The future will tell if electric motorcycles will actually catch on more broadly in the country, but the project itself is a great start.

Knowing the energetic, entrepreneurial nature of Kenyans, particularly the tech-savvy younger generation, I expect that these early projects in the solar electric revolution will quickly spread across Kenya. Within a decade, Kenya, rather than being a laggard in solar electricity and electric vehicles, will be one of the hottest solar-powered countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

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