Growth of solar energy in Kenya and its potential
It is almost a century since the modern solar cell was invented. Solar technology has been evolving since and it is now one of the most affordable and reliable sources of renewable energy in many rural parts of the developing world.
With the advent of the 21st century came the increased uptake of solar energy in Kenya. This coincided with the increased penetration of Mobile phones and surge in the number of middle-income Kenyans. Access to electricity became a necessity where each household required at least a charging point for their phones. Therefore, Solar became the main power option for many households and small businesses that were not connected to the grid. Today, Kenya has one of the highest solar power connections per capita in the developing world, just second to India.
Solar for productive use has also evolved over the years. Solar is now applied across a spectrum of applications ranging from water pumping, lighting, heating, ventilation and irrigation. The applications range from mega plants, with the largest plant in the world currently located in India with a capacity of 2,700 MW, to small PICO solar systems that use small light weight photovoltaic panels to generate power in a wide range of small and portable applications such as lanterns, shavers, incubators, amplifies etc.
Despite the government efforts in rural electrification, almost 17 million Kenyans do not have access to any form of electricity. In addition, those with access are looking for other alternative sources of power due to the high cost and unreliability of the supply from Kenya power, the only power utility company in Kenya. Many have installed solar either as back up (to have power during power cuts) or to reduce their power costs. Particularly, industrial and huge commercial enterprises such as manufacturing companies, petrol stations and malls have embraced solar energy to reduce their power bills with some like Kenya Breweries opting to go completely off-grid in the next few years.
The government of Kenya has played some role, though ambivalent sometimes, in the growth of solar energy in Kenya. The government decision to remove duty and exempt VAT on solar equipment such as panels, batteries and controllers has played a major role in making solar power affordable to many Kenyans. Although the solar market in Kenya is largely driven by the private sector, the government has in the recent past embarked on large solar power plants that feed to the national grid. The Garissa solar power station with 55MW capacity is the largest grid-connected solar plant in East and Central Africa.
However, challenges still abound the solar sector which has limited the realization of its full potential. Some of the major challenges include;
Lack of access to finance- The initial cost of purchasing solar is still fairly high and many customers lack the finances to pay for the system upfront. The options available for financing solar are minimal with banks and other financial institutions shying away from coming up with products that target the solar market. To bridge the gap some solar companies are now offering PAYGO (Pay As You Go) financing model whereby a customer pays some deposit and the balance in installments over a period of time.
Lack of awareness- There is general lack of awareness, especially in rural areas, about the available solar options and their benefits. Increasing awareness will enable people to understand and make informed decisions. Currently, many people rely on user experience from people they interact with and if that experience is not good due to factors such as quality of equipment used or workmanship, the perception about solar may be distorted.
Skilled labor- There are no many experts in the solar sector. The Energy regulation requires only licensed technicians to design and install solar but most technicians are self-trained and operate without a license. This affects the quality of solutions that are offered to customers hence diminishing customer experience in using solar.
“Despite the aforementioned challenges, Solar energy will continue to play crucial role in providing clean energy to existing and future generations in Kenya.”