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Solar-Powered Battery Swap Stations Could Speed Rwanda’s Shift to Electric “Motos”

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Like many parts of Africa, motorcycles are the most popular form of transportation among Rwanda’s 13.3 million people. Whether they’re commuting to work or school, transporting jugs of water from the local taps, or just running everyday errands, people on “motos” can be found zipping up and down most busy streets in the East African nation. Many locals also rely on these motos for their livelihoods as taxi drivers.

But despite their convenience and popularity, motos — mostly powered by fossil fuels — leave behind more than just dusty roads. The two-wheeled vehicles produce greenhouse gas emissions, noise, hazardous air pollution, and contribute to the country’s heavy reliance on imported oil.

The road transport sector is responsible for 13% of Rwanda’s national emissions, with more than a quarter of it coming from motos. The gas-fueled motos also contribute more than 90% of particulate matter air pollution.

Electric motos, especially those powered by renewable energy, offer a promising solution for reducing emissions, improving air quality, and providing economic benefits.

Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, is among the fastest growing cities in Africa, with an urbanization annual growth rate of 4%, and it contributes over 41% of the national GDP. In Kigali, there are about 26,000 moto taxis in operation, most of which are powered by gas engines.

In partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, the government of Rwanda launched a project to gradually phase out traditional gas-powered motorcycles and convert them to electric bikes. Kigali’s relatively small size and cohesive urban design also make the city an ideal testing ground to see if a transition to electric motorcycles could work across the continent.

But first, it must overcome some hurdles.

3 Challenges of Converting to Electric Motos

While electric motorcycles are an effective way for Kigali to curb pollution and reduce dependence on imported oil, rolling out a large number of electric motos will be challenging. These hurdles include:

1) Insufficient and Unstable Power Supply

Some city districts still have very low electricity access. Blackouts and erratic outages are common occurrences at night when many devices are connected to the system. According to data published by the Rwanda Energy Group, the country’s total installed electricity capacity is only about 300MW, while demand is expected to reach 556MW by 2024, according to the Energy Sector Strategy Plan 2018-2024 published by Rwanda’s Ministry of Infrastructure.

2) High Initial Investment Costs

In Rwanda, many motos are sold without the battery to make them more affordable for low-income customers. High-quality batteries can cost up to $1,000, so batteries are often leased. As a result, battery leasing and swap services have become the preferred choice for many moto drivers, but there aren’t yet enough of them to support a fully electric moto sector.

3) Long Charging Times

Charging an electric moto takes an average of six to eight hours, much longer than refueling with conventional gasoline. The lost operation time can reduce incomes for the many drivers that rely on them for work (such as taxi or delivery services). Moto drivers work an average of more than 10 hours per day, six days a week. Even fast charging still takes more time than refueling with conventional gasoline and comes with added risks of damaging batteries and reducing the lifecycle of the motorcycle.

An Energy-Efficient Solution: Solar-Powered Swap Stations

A battery swap station, also known as a battery switching station or battery exchange station, is a facility where electric vehicle drivers — including electric moto drivers — can quickly replace a depleted battery with a fully charged one in the same amount of time it takes to refuel a gas-powered motorcycle.

There are currently a limited number of swap stations in Kigali, which are mostly in central urban areas with easy access to the power grid. To support a large number of electric motos aligned with the government’s target, more swap stations are needed in urban, suburban and rural areas, including in areas without access to the electric grid.

Creating more battery swap stations that can be run using distributed solar photovoltaic technology might be an encouraging solution. The solar technology means the swap stations won’t need to rely on an over-burdened electric grid. They can also be placed in more remote locations where energy access is difficult or limited.

But doing so will require significant funding. Foreign investment can play a significant role. WRI China is currently exploring potential ways Chinese companies and other foreign investors can partner with Rwandan battery swap station operators and moto drivers to create and expand access to solar-powered swap stations and the benefits that come with them.

Benefits of Scaling Solar Power Battery Swap Stations in Kigali

Converting Kigali’s 26,000 operating motos into electric motos and quickly building and converting swap stations to solar power by mobilizing foreign investment addresses the challenges of high initial investment costs, unstable electricity and inadequate battery swap station facilities, avoiding long charging times. It can also provide valuable experience for Rwanda and other African countries in their efforts for an urban green transportation transformation.

Some of the benefits include:

  • Economic Improvements: Solar-powered battery swap stations can bring new jobs and economic benefits to the community. A distributed solar power station can generate revenue by selling green electricity to the battery swap station operator. Battery swap station operators can earn revenue from their services. And electric moto drivers can reduce their fuel and maintenance costs.
  • Lower Climate Emissions: Studies indicate that gasoline motorcycles emit approximately 11.78 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per 100 kilometers. Electric motorcycles using renewable energy produce 98% less emissions than gasoline-powered motorcycles.
  • Cleaner Air for Better Health: Gas-fueled motorcycles contribute more than 90% of particulate matter air pollution in Rwanda. Electric motos avoid harmful tailpipe emissions, contributing to better air quality and public health.

Improving Africa’s Quality of Life

For a long time, energy scarcity has been a significant factor hindering African nations’ socio-economic development. The unstable power supply has struggled to support the rapid pace of industrialization. However, Africa’s geography is endowed with significant renewable energy resources, and the country holds immense development potential for implementing renewable energy like solar.

If solar-power battery swap stations can be successfully piloted in Kigali, it can not only bring direct benefits to Rwanda’s economy, environment and people, but also provide a replicable model for the green transformation of an estimated 5 million motorcycles in East African countries.

By Cheng Zhang and Miao Hong, Insights (WRI’s flagship publication dedicated to telling stories about the intersection of people, nature and the climate). Republished with permission from WRI.


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