Switch to solar campaign is dead on arrival, not now, not ever

In Summary

•One reason that might explain this slow growth is the cost factor.

•While the sun may be freely available, the technology unfortunately is not. 

Frank Ochieng.
Frank Ochieng.
Image: COURTESY

There is a simmering debate in Kenya currently to a point of a revolutionary move from grid to solar power. The idea on many of the solar proponents’ minds is that one would wake up one morning and decide to give the electricity utility a wide berth and automatically switch to solar energy.

However, this is far from the truth as many customers end up realizing, the moment they decide to implement the dream of owning a mini solar power plant in their installations. The first thing a potential customer is met with is a high installation bill, followed by an even higher maintenance and associated costs. 

From the outset, it is important to note that this idea is not unfounded because Kenya is well in the equatorial zones which makes solar a viable source of energy. According to Kenya’s Energy Regulator, the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA), the country has tremendous potential in solar energy, yet with less than 1% of the country’s energy mix being tapped from solar.

One reason that might explain this slow growth is the cost factor. While the sun may be freely available, the technology unfortunately is not. Kenya imports all the technology, including equipment and expertise, hence driving the cost further up above the global average.

The other prohibitive inherent characteristic is that Solar is only available during the day. At night, or during the rainy seasons, one would require batteries for storage. That is where it gets complicated, when you bring in the storage aspect, which is the most expensive component of the system, the installation and maintenance cost shoots beyond what the average Kenyan consumer can afford.

To further add salt to injury, in less than five years, the system you instal today will be worth half the price if not a quarter or completely obsolete. Solar is an evolving technology and every year new modifications are developed as engineers and entrepreneurs, race against time to provide a solution from what many believe is possible. So as the debate rages on, more and more Kenyans will continue to rely on the grid as their sole supplier of electricity.

Indeed, the statistics show that demand for grid power continues to grow even as solar capacity expands. Today, as Kenya emerges from the COVID-19 induced restrictions, electricity demand post COVID-19 peak period has risen to the highest figure ever recorded in history, now at 1,944MW. This goes to show that the demand is growing and is bound to grow even further.

Before giving into the ‘solar switch’ mob psychology, which could be driven by influencers and solar supply companies, it is important for policy makers, potential investors and the general public to take a step back and objectively review the risks associated with solar technology. Firstly, it is important to consider the various options available for one interested in investing in solar. In principle, there are three major ones with the most common one in Kenya being the Grid-Tie System. This type is what many large companies and organisations in Kenya have invested in.

The downside of this is that a grid-tie System will not work without the grid, it needs the grid to function. A grid-tie system is connected to the national grid which in effect makes the customer a net producer of energy. When you have excess supply from solar, you can pass it on to the grid which will then be deducted from your monthly consumption. This can invariably reduce your annual electricity bill from the utility. On the flipside, when the grid is out, the solar will not work.

This disadvantage is what may lead many to opt for the Island Solar System which works independently and is not connected to the grid. The problem with this however which therefore makes it unpopular is that it is capital intensive. For example, for a simple two-bedroomed house, one would spend at least Ksh.700,000 to get a system that would entirely replace services offered by the grid system. This is what many Kenyans hope for when seeking the solar solution.   

Now do the maths, if you spend Ksh.700,000, assuming you were paying Ksh.3,000 per month to the national utility, it will take up to 20 years to recover this money assuming there are no maintenance costs. But you will not have the 20 years since in five years or so, your solar service provider will be knocking your door with another bill to upgrade your system. One soon realises that solar is a good story to tell but that is as far as it goes.

By their nature, solar equipment must be put in a place with a lot of sunlight - rooftop preferably - the panels and other equipment are usually affected by ultraviolet radiation which means they will not go for more than five years with the same efficiency.  

Moreover, for an island solar system, the roof may not be enough, one would need additional space to install the panels for meaningful energy generation and storage batteries. The maintenance cost that comes with this is extremely high, especially for the batteries. Having the solar panels on your roof will also mean that when you need to repair the roof, you will be forced to pull down the whole system and call the service provider to remove it and later reinstall, at a fee. At the same time, the additional weight of the panels if not considered during the building design and construction may also lead to damage of the roof over time.

The other thing that your solar service producer will not tell you is that solar batteries work the same way as mobile phone batteries. In technical terms, this is a habit known as deep cycling, which simply means draining the batteries over time.

If the battery gets to 20% a good phone will prompt you to charge it. Also, once your phone has reached 100% you are advised to unplug it. It is therefore unwise to charge your phone overnight as this will reduce the life of the battery. Same concept applies to solar, if you deep cycle the batteries routinely overtime, the batteries will be drained and will need replacement.  This may explain why solar streetlights stop working few months after installation.

This leave you with the third option which is to have a Hybrid system that enables one to receive power from the national grid and at the same time be able to power solely from solar. This however is more expensive than the grid-tie system, making it unpopular and rare in Kenya.

Waste disposal and impact to environment in the context of climate change is another disadvantage of solar that should worry a developing country like Kenya. The rush to put up solar systems will in the end leave the country with solid and electronic wastes from the bulky nonbiodegradable equipment. To that end, the green quality of solar energy is substantially discounted.

One thing is granted though, that all this uproar is because of unsatisfactory services by the national grid system. For years, electricity consumers have been forced to contend with poor customer service, which in effect has led many to lose both confidence and hope in the service provider. But as an African say goes, you “Do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” This is the time for us as a nation to look at the woes of the power distributor more critically and work objectively towards developing home-grown solutions.

Kenyans have an opportunity here to defend our sovereignty and not fall into the temptation of opting for the Solar experiments, which if allowed to go unchecked, will take us back more than 20 years, dependent on electricity supply from our neighbours like Ethiopia and Uganda.

In addressing the problems of the utility, we may be forced to look at the system losses which come in two folds: loss of electricity before the meter through theft and technical hitches; and loss of revenue after the meter. These are the areas I believe the ongoing recovery strategy at the utility and energy sector are currently focusing on. Best practice allows a loss of about 14% but this has been much higher in Kenya over the years.

So, before we fall into the temptation of opting for solar, it is time think about how sustainable that choice is. When all is said and done, no economy across civilisations has been built primarily on solar energy, and Kenya will not be the first to negate this.

 

Frank David Ochieng’

Email: [email protected]