Going Solar In Kenya

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In 2007 when Gladys and I moved to Kenya, we bought this 150 watt solar panel and a battery at a cost of about $2,000. First it took Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) more than six months to connect the grid electricity to our house. When we were finally connected to the grid, one of the major problems was that there are outages perhaps five times per week. Some are short, but others last almost the whole day, and once we were three days without grid power.

In 2007 when Gladys and I moved to Kenya, we bought this 150 watt solar panel and a battery at a cost of about $2,000

It is upsetting when you sit down to dinner and have the first bite almost to your mouth and the lights go out. This solar system is only sufficient to run the lights in the house and my laptop, so the grandchildren would have to run to turn off the refrigerator while I went in the dark to the disconnect box to switch from grid electricity and to the solar backup. 

While in 2007 the 150 watt panel alone cost almost $1000, the 360 watt panels we just bought cost only $179.35 each. This illustrates the first of two trends that make it worthwhile to get a solar system. First, the cost of a solar system has gone down drastically in the last 13 years. Second, when we moved to Kenya, the cost of electricity in Kenya was less than what we were paying at our house in the US. Over time, though, the cost of electricity kept rising in Kenya so now it is almost twice the amount per kilowatt hour what we would need to pay in the US. Recently KPLC announced another 20% price increase. 

On March 30th, 2019, CleanTechnica published my article The Best Summary Of Kenya Renewable Energy (& Dirty Energy) You Can Find (see here). Here is a quote from that article: 

Since the equator runs right through the middle of Kenya and that much of the country is arid and semi-arid, one would assume that solar generation of electricity would be a no-brainer…Solar power potential in Kenya is enormous and their development is just beginning.

This is less than two years ago, and currently solar energy installations are exploding. There are now small solar farms, companies are installing solar for the same economic and power outages that concern me, and rooftop solar on residences are becoming common – one of our neighbors is just installing one on his new house. Partly as a result of this, KPLC has an excess of capacity, which is one of the reasons that the cost of electricity continues to rise – due to contracts with providers, KPLC has to pay for generation of energy even if it is not used. This trend to install solar has alarmed KPLC (see here for a November 20th article Kenya Power raises alarm over clients solar switch) and there is legislation to make it harder to install solar. The government claims that helping KPLC to remain financially solvent is not the reason for these new regulations. Perhaps, but this is not going to stall the installation of solar systems in Kenya. KPLC will need to adjust. 

When our monthly electricity bill continued to climb, we decided to explore a solar option for our house. By this time, there are a number of solar power companies advertising in Kenya. I found three advertising on Facebook and emailed them about my interest in a solar power system. Two of the three never responded, but the third, Power Africa Solar (or its international name, PV Tech), immediately called. They sent me their information and I began to ask questions about what we were getting into. Their customer service was superb. I mentioned to Gladys that this was the best company in Kenya that I had ever had dealings with. Do I need to say that KPLC is extremely difficult to deal with? Unfortunately my bubble burst when the solar system was installed and I was told that it is an American company (the head office is in Ontario, CA). Then when I looked up PV Tech on the internet (see here), I found that the company was mostly founded by Kenyans who had lived in America for a long time and had done well in the US corporate world. Many of the significant personnel in the Kenyan office are closely related to those founders in California. To get another bid, I went to a company in Eldoret that installs solar systems. For fewer panels, their price was higher than the quote we had received from PV Tech. Moreover, I didn’t have confidence that the salesperson was knowledgeable about home solar systems and giving me proper advice. 

The system that PV Tech proposed and we accepted did not completely disconnect us from the grid. Those high consumption items – the electric oven, the electric burners on our stove (we mostly use the cooking gas burners on the stove), the instantaneous hot water heaters, and the Napier grass cutting machine – remain on the grid, while everything else including lights, laptop, TV, refrigerator, washing machine, iron, microwave, toaster, water pump, and other small appliances, are on the solar system. The solar system will provide us with about 85% of our consumption. The system has six 360 watt solar panels, an inverter, and four 24 amp gel batteries that are supposed to last 15 years. I’ll let you know in 2035 if they have lasted fifteen years. The system cost $5519.18. I paid in US dollars since this saved us about $230. If there are no rate increases, it will take about 10 years to recover the cost. Since the local utility rates continue to increase, I assume that it will be more like 7 years to recoup the cost of the system. Note that my original small system is now over 13 years old. 

The beginning of the installation with the solar panels spread out on the lawn.
Chief technician Francis Mukula lifts the fifth heavy panel onto the roof for Julius and Mudavadi to secure to the roof.
Gladys, Francis, and I are celebrating the installation of the six panels on the roof. Francis immediately posted this on Power Africa

Francis immediately posted this on Power Africa Solar’s Facebook ad. It has 387 likes, 107 comments, and 41 shares. One of Gladys’ nephews saw the ad and commented on the installation. Here is one of the comments from this Facebook ad:

“Whenever I see solar panels I smile knowing very well that the despicable company by the name of KPLC has lost it big time and it’s pay back time.”

Here are the four batteries, the inverter, and on/off switches installed in our utility room.

So how is it working? Superbly. It has exceeded my expectations. One advantage I did not realize is that, if there is insufficient sunlight or we exceed our usual daily usage and the batteries become depleted, the inverter will automatically move us to grid electricity. So we will never be in the dark. Even though we have not yet hooked up the microwave and toaster to the solar system as we have to do some rewiring in the kitchen, it seems, as expected, that 85% of our electricity is being generated by solar. While the system runs on batteries at night, by noon or so the next morning, the batteries are fully recharged. I suspect that we are generating more electricity than we are using which means that the excess after the batteries are recharged are “wasted.” Then, again, this is part of the safety factor built into the system. 

One thing our system does not do is decrease climate emissions much, because 93% of Kenyan electricity on the grid already comes from renewable sources. We will install the 2007 solar system in our old house so that, when the grid is down, it can back up the lights there like it used to do in our present house. 

I am well satisfied with our new solar power system. The solar revolution has been launched in Kenya and is quickly gaining “sunshine.”

All images courtesy of David Zarembka

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