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RELIABLE POWER

Mini grid electricity the only way to get millions out of darkness

Europe and Americas only achieved 100 per cent electricity access by investing in mini-grids

In Summary

•As a result across Africa, it costs a utility such as Kenya Power Sh150,000 to connect a customer to power, compared to only Sh74,000 for a min-grid company such as Powerhive in Kisii to connect an end user.

•It is perhaps out of this realisation that the Kenya government and the World Bank in 2018 initiated the Kenya Off-Grid Solar Access Project (KOSAP), to help disadvantaged communities enjoy affordable, clean and reliable lighting.

An aerial view of a power plant in Mombasa.
An aerial view of a power plant in Mombasa.

Over the past six months, millions of young Kenyans have lost valuable learning time as they stayed home due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Various options have been explored by authorities to offer schooling through alternatives such as distance learning, but these have proved unviable. This is because virtual learning is delivered via gadgets such as computers and smart phones which are powered by electricity.

Virtual learning would therefore have disadvantaged hundreds of thousands of students especially in rural areas whose families have no electricity, either because they are either poor or live in remote, isolated parts of the country, away from main-grid electricity.

More than a quarter of Kenyans do not have access to electricity according to a 2018 World Bank report. This, in absolute numbers, means that close to 12 million of Kenya’s population in ‘underserved’ counties are living in darkness, literally.

This number also forms part of the estimated 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa living without electricity, relying on wood fire, kerosene and other forms of dirty energy for lighting.

COST EFFECTIVE

Whereas national grids transfer electricity from our dams, thermal power stations or the Naivasha geothermal fields to urban settlements, mini-grids cover much shorter distances and serve localised populations in rural settlements.

This is why Africans make up the lion’s share of the estimated 790 million people without electricity globally according to the United Nations.

The world now recognises access to energy as a basic human right, which is why the UN adopted this as its Sustainable Goal number seven. One of the major obstacles to ensuring that everybody enjoys this right is the high cost of generation, transmission and connecting users, particularly in remote, sparsely populated, low population areas.

In countries where 100 per cent access has been achieved, such as Europe and the Americas, this has been done through investing in mini-grid electricity which helps light up their more remote corners. Africa is no different and therefore has much to benefit from this largely untapped technology.

Whereas national grids transfer electricity from our dams, thermal power stations or the Naivasha geothermal fields to urban settlements, mini-grids cover much shorter distances and serve localised populations in rural settlements.

Usually running up to ten kilometres in radius, they tap power from the sun or wind, store it in batteries and distribute it to users, allowing them to enjoy electricity even when they are living tens of miles away from the national grid.

Besides connecting remote communities, the decentralised systems use clean energy sources of wind and solar, helping our continent contribute to lowering harmful emissions responsible for climate change.

Their place in ensuring 100 per cent electricity coverage has been confirmed by a recent survey by the Africa Mini-grid Developers Association (AMDA), which found that the mini-grid sector was growing quickly, with operational, installation and capital costs decreasing by as much as 60 per cent over the past five years.

As a result across Africa, it costs a utility such as Kenya Power Sh150,000 to connect a customer to power, compared to only Sh74,000 for a min-grid company such as Powerhive in Kisii to connect an end user.

President Uhuru Kenyatta switches on power at a home in Kikuyu constituency in 2017. Still, more than a quarter of Kenyans do not have access to electricity.
President Uhuru Kenyatta switches on power at a home in Kikuyu constituency in 2017. Still, more than a quarter of Kenyans do not have access to electricity.

Using data from 28 companies in 12 African countries, the survey found that the decentralised systems offered excellent service reliability with power generated 99 per cent of the time. In Malawi, the only country with data on both grid types, the main grid only supplied reliable power 72 per cent of the time. This means that the smaller units can actually suffer fewer outages and breakdowns compared to larger systems.

These findings have once again reminded us of the opportunities we continue waste by failing to exploit our freely available and abundant clean energy resources. They are a wakeup call that we must take advantage of innovation such as mini-grids to overcome some of the daunting developmental challenges we face.

It is perhaps out of this realisation that the Kenya government and the World Bank in 2018 initiated the Kenya Off-Grid Solar Access Project (KOSAP), to help disadvantaged communities enjoy affordable, clean and reliable lighting.

The Sh15 billion five years project is being implemented in 14 counties of Lamu, West Pokot, Turkana, Marsabit, Samburu, Isiolo, Mandera, Wajir, Garrisa, Tana River, Kilifi, Kwale, Taita Taveta and Narok.

These areas are undeniably lagging behind in terms of development and underserved and will benefit from the new energy systems of the future, that promote distributed, smart, flexible and diverse energy systems, in contrast with conventional approaches favouring grid-based systems with centralised control.

In a nutshell network of renewable-powered mini-grids, stretching out across our country’s more remote areas will ultimately strengthen Kenya’s resilience to unseen shocks like Covid-19. Had we invested much earlier in mini-grids, there’s little doubt that our children would be learning remotely from home today.

Mohamed Adow is the Director of Powershift Africa, a Nairobi-based Energy and Climate think tank, and can be found on twitter at @mohadow.

Email: [email protected]