Photo: Solar panels outside Strathmore University Energy Research Centre. Credit: Justus Wanzala | IDN-INPS - Photo: 2016

Off-Grid Renewables to Tackle Africa’s Energy Woes

By Justus Wanzala

NAIROBI (ACP-IDN) – Nestled in the dry Kajiado County, one and half hour drive from Kenya’s capital Nairobi is the Oloishibor Community Energy Project, an oasis of light in a remote hamlet. It was started in 2009. A brainchild of a community based organisation established by the local pastoral Maasai Community.

Simon Parkesian, the Energy Project’s manager says the community had been facing a myriad of problems ranging from poor health, education to economical. The situation was compounded by lack of electricity.

As a result, members decided to start a cost sharing programme of installing solar panels on roofs of their houses. With institutions such as a schools and a dispensary being put up at Oloishibor, the community sought help initially from United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to put up solar panels and wind turbines for large scale use. Support also came from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which installed more wind turbines and solar panels.

The community was able to provide electricity to the local primary school, a dispensary and a church. It also provides power to a rescue centre for girls from the community fleeing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and forced early marriages rampant among the pastoralists in Kenya.

“The project has been of tremendous help to the community. We do phone charging, some 50-70 phones every day, offer photocopying, printing services and internet service. The performance of pupils in the local is good owing to availability of light which enables them to read at night,” says Parkesian. At the same time the local dispensary uses the power not just for lighting but also keeping vaccines under refrigeration.

Houses near the energy project are also connected with power and owners pay a monthly fee that foots salaries and general running of the project. “Households pay Kenya shillings 500, while the institutions pay Kenya shillings 1,500,” says Parkesian. Women groups in area also use the power to do craftwork for export.

The solar panels generate six KW with the wind turbines generating another six KW. Parkesian however observes that high cost of maintenance, lack of spare parts, unavailability of technicians within the locality are challenges that the project faces.

He says the project’s future is bright. They have started training youth in the community on renewable energy. The community is also considering installing a milk coolant given to preserve milk, which goes to waste for lack of storage facilities especially during the rainy season.

Some 12,000 people benefit both directly and indirectly from the project. The Oloishibor Community Energy Project is just but one of the many successful off grid renewable projects harnessing solar and wind energy to improve the lives of communities not reached by national power grids in Africa. The energy project is a partner of Kenya’s Strathmore University’s Energy Research Centre, a leading institution in promotion of off grid renewable power adoption.

Izael Pereira Da Silva, Kenya’s Strathmore University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor and a renewable energy specialist says the university established the renewable energy research centre four years ago and is keen to transform it into centre of excellence in Africa.

He says the centre collaborates with Kenya’s Energy Regulatory Commission Authority (ERC) and has lobbied for policy changes to encourage growth of the renewable energy sector in Kenya. The centre trains technicians on installation of hybrid power systems (wind, solar and even fossil fuel powered ones). Da Silva says they intend to expand their services to the East African region.

Anne Macharia, an engineer at Strathmore University Energy Research Centre says the university is already heavily investing in solar energy research and development.  

The lab’s main role is research and testing the quality of solar appliances. “Kenya and most Sub-Saharan countries lack capacity to test the quality of solar equipment. Tests are done for a fee against manufactures settings in line with KEBS standards and reports are published.

They also undertake on-site tests for already installed solar units for customers. Anne says the centre will test large units in future for currently its capacity is small. The centre is the only one in the region undertaking solar energy equipment testing.

Da Silva is highly optimistic about off grid renewable energy prospects. He states that in five years time, renewable energy sector in the East African region will be booming. “In Kenya a new bill on renewable energy stipulates that 60 percent of water heating should be done using solar energy. Opportunities are thus immense,” says Da Silva. He adds that the worse aspect of poverty is energy poverty; it affects education, agriculture and industrial growth.

During the third International Off-Grid Renewable Energy Conference (IOREC) organised by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Nairobi on October 1-2, 2016, it emerged that power cannot be extended to everyone solely through national electricity grids.

Participants noted that off-grid renewable energy solutions are crucial to achievement of universal access to electricity in Africa and other developing regions of the world.

According to IRENA about 80 percent of those lacking modern energy access live in rural areas, which also host more than 70 percent of the world’s poor. With Africa having a large population of rural dwellers, it thus has a disproportionally high number of those without access to electricity.

IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin said to attract private investment in renewable mini-grids, policy makers need to select the right policies and create an effective regulatory framework. Amin said since 2009, cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) has reduced by 80 percent.

He said technical innovation and innovation in business models and finance will result in a 60 per cent decrease in the cost of producing electricity from renewable mini-grids in the next 20 years. Off-grid renewable energy solutions, he noted are suitable for delivering of energy in an affordable, secure and environmentally sustainable way.

According to IRENA, falling technology costs of solar PV are likely to result in increase in the number of off grid solar units across Africa. A report released by IRENA in September 2016 titled Solar PV in Africa: Costs and Markets indicated that declining technology costs of solar PV are likely to result in an installation boom on the continent.

The report’s authors noted that the costs for power generated by utility-scale solar PV in Africa have decreased by 61 percent since 2012 to the current rate of $1.30 per watt in Africa, compared to the global average of $1.80 per watt.

Citing the case of Ghana, Michael Opam, Executive Secretary General, Energy Commission, and Ghana said political commitment is key to growth of renewable energy in Africa. These include sound policies.

He said the government of Ghana is keen to see 200,000 roof top solar projects undertaken and is hence focusing on prudent and judicious coordination of the projects as well as putting in place strong regulatory mechanisms.

Participants in the conference lamented the lack of skilled personnel in Africa to take off grid renewable energy to the next level. Safiatou Alzouma Nouhou, IRENA, Manager Africa Programme, also in charge of West said demand for training is tremendously growing.

She said IRENA has started a pilot capacity building programme involving training of youth in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region. They work with local institutions identified as centres of excellence. The centre’s offer tailor made courses. IRENA is also exploring ways of partnering with financial institutions. The programme if successful will be expanded to rest of Africa.

The third International Off-Grid Renewable Energy Conference took place at a time when ministers and heads of delegation from the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group had welcomed a new initiative designed to scale up renewable energy and energy efficiency for least developed countries. The Ministerial meeting was held on 28 September during the gathering of LDC negotiators in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, in preparation for COP22, the 22nd Climate Change Conference.

The initiative, called the “LDC Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Initiative (REEEI) for Sustainable Development”, will be launched at the next UN climate change conference to be held in Marrakech this November 2016.

Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, Democratic Republic of the Congo’s ‎Climate Change Specialist and Chair of the LDC Group said the initiative would enable LDCs to transit from fossil fuel based energy. He said the initiative will provide modern, clean, resilient energy systems a sustainable future and generate prosperity.

During the 2016 IOREC, some 500 participants shared experiences and discussed best practices on the design and implementation of enabling policies, tailored financing schemes, innovative business models, and technology applications to boost off-grid systems development. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 October 2016]

Note: This report is part of a joint project of the Secretariat of the ACP Group of States and IDN, a flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

Photo: Solar panels outside Strathmore University Energy Research Centre. Credit: Justus Wanzala | IDN-INPS


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