On the cusp of an African energy revolution

It is no secret that much of Africa has a scanty network of traditional infrastructure like telephone lines, banking services and electric grids. But it is also becoming less secret that, paradoxically, this deprivation is actually an opportunity in the modern world. The continent can afford to experiment without breaking anything important.

Take Kenya’s reverse electrical revolution.

Kenya produces 2,294 MW of electricity using a mixture of hydroelectric stations, oil-driven generation plants and geothermal sources. (For scale, Itaipu Dam on the border between Paraguay and Brazil alone generates 14,000 MW -- a mere 17 percent of the county’s power.) The result is that, as of 2015, only 28 percent of Kenyans are connected to the spotty electricity grid, leaving the rest of the country to contend with the danger and unhealthy side effects of smoky hurricane and tin lamps to light up the nights, and bedtimes that come too early nevertheless.

Yet in many homes in the unconnected countryside the kerosene lamps are starting to gather dust in the corners. They are being replaced by LED lamps powered by small devices with Lithium-ion batteries which are charged during the day by equally small roof-mounted solar panels. In many cases, these devices also have USB ports for charging phones.

Many companies and individuals are involved in this grand lighting project, and they have taken a variety of approaches which have only one attribute in common; they are working. Some companies offer the systems on variants of hire purchase while others offer them on low interest loans.

The result is that Africa is electrifying from the consumer’s end, rather than from the grid. And it’s doing so using free, clean solar energy, and at an organic pace that doesn’t require the heavy investments required to construct a grid almost from scratch. While the processes of manufacturing solar panels and LEDs are not without their environmental impact, the benefits of the new systems are enormous.

Families manage to squeeze more out of their meagre incomes by not purchasing kerosene, whose toxic greenhouse fumes are removed from the energy equation, along with CO2; children get to study later into the night; phones stay near their owners instead of being taken to marketplaces for charging; and businesses stay open later than before.

These might seem small conveniences to people used to reliable electric connections and 24-hour economies, but for the people who are switching to solar energy in Africa, they are life-changing. And they are a direct rebuke to the assumption that countries have to ravage the environment to reduce poverty.

What’s more, unless a day is particularly cloudy, which is a rarity in this part of the world, there are no power cuts when it comes to solar energy. Rural families end up enjoying more convenience and reliability than their counterparts in many Kenyan cities – where blackouts are a familiar part of life – without enduring the taxing bureaucracy and exorbitant costs involved in getting and staying connected to the grid.
Some of the companies behind the new phenomenon, like SolarAid, MKopa, d.light, Barefoot Power, Glenergy and others, have their sights on eliminating the obnoxious kerosene lamps and replacing them with the solar lights by 2020. And, just as MPesa replaced banks, which were financial unicorns in Kenya, they might just achieve this.

Already, Kenya is the fastest growing market for solar products on the continent. It has more solar power systems per capita than any country in the world, according to a 2012 report by the Solar Energy Fund (SELF), which also says more Kenyans are installing solar systems than making grid connections. The government removed taxes on the import of raw materials for the manufacture of solar panels in 2011, helping popularise and cheapen the technology locally.

Solar technology is also getting better and cheaper. Estimates from Q-Cells, a German solar company indicate that, by the end of 2015, solar power will reach grid parity – as cheap or cheaper than the grid – in more than half of African countries, including Kenya, where the grid costs KES 80 (~ US$ 1) per watt. This is thanks in part to Africa’s high solar irradiance.

Unless governments throw all their budgets into expanding grids and generating power over the next few years, solar looks set to be the primary source of power for most of Africa. Nevertheless, the solar revolution is just starting and still has a long way to go. For starters, many of the currently installed solar panels are tiny and do little more than power the lights and juice up a few phones before requiring more sun.

For cooking and other tasks, rural dwellers and a number of their urban counterparts still have to use kerosene, firewood, charcoal, or just brute human force; so the reduction of danger and environmental pollution is minimal. All this will change as more people upgrade and increase the capacities of their solar systems after the initial installation.

What the developed world perceives as incremental technological improvements are, in Africa, inaugural technologies, making uptake smooth and fast. Where such technologies prove useful, Africa easily becomes the pioneer. Solar energy, coupled with unassuming energy efficient LEDs, looks poised to be one such technology.

With the slow pace of rural electrification through the grid, it is quite possible that, when it arrives at the Kenyan homes and businesses that are now unconnected, the grid will be fed with energy by the consumers rather than drawn from, driving an energy revolution on a scale quite unlike anything seen before.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi


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