Converting Diesel Mini-grids to Solar Makes Kenya More Sustainable

As Kenya’s population and economy grow, energy providers are leveraging renewable resources and converting existing diesel-powered mini-grids to hybrid systems. The goal is to mitigate power shortages, bring electricity and development opportunities to rural areas, promote industrial growth and support increased prosperity across the country. 

Kenya’s electric utility, Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) has issued a proposal to add solar and wind power generation to 23 diesel mini-grids in operation across the country. With support from the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum, the Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation and French development agency the Agence Française de Développement, the Kenya Off-Grid Retrofitting Program plans to hybridize some existing remote power grids, some of which have been running since the early 80s.

The existing mini-grids range in capacity from 50-2,320 kVa and of the 23 mini-grids planned for retrofitting, 21 will receive solar generation technology, while only one will be fitted with wind turbines. Until recently, all sites were run on diesel generator sets but some have an existing mix of solar and wind turbines.

By facilitating the transformation to cleaner and more secure power generation through projects such as these, the Kenyan Ministry of Energy and Petroleum hopes that it can leverage renewable resources to help eliminate power shortages, bring electricity and development opportunities to rural villages, spur on industrial growth and support increased prosperity across the country. 

With its growing population and expanding economy, Africa faces a multitude of energy challenges in the decade ahead. As demand soars, power providers are looking to meet this increased need with added renewable capacity to support the continent’s long-term prosperity.

The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2040, solar energy will contribute the largest share—about 47%—of the technology mix for mini-grids and off-the-grid systems power generation in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2040.

Kenya, the third-largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, is a pioneer in renewable power, with a portfolio of solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal energy providing for approximately 93% of the country’s energy needs. Kenya not only leads the continent in renewable energy production, but it aims to achieve a 100% clean energy mix by 2030.

However, Kenya’s population is estimated to increase from 46 million to 65.4 million from 2015-2030 according to The World Bank, and the country’s electricity consumption is forecasted to increase in parallel during that period. With this growth in mind, the Kenyan Ministry of Energy and Petroleum is taking steps to boost capacity with additional power from wind and solar in an effort to meet the needs of an increasingly urbanized population and growing economy.

This increase in renewable capacity is critical. Grid instability and frequent outages have proven detrimental to Kenya’s economy. In May of 2020, the country suffered a nationwide blackout that lasted about six hours. The following month, as Kenya Power and Lighting Company worked to upgrade the distribution network and replace damaged lines, more than 20 counties lost electricity for about 10 hours.

Air pollution, considered by WHO as the world’s single greatest environmental risk to health, is another urgent issue that renewables can address. In Kenya, an estimated 19,000 people die prematurely from conditions related to air pollution and evidence suggests that air pollution will worsen in the coming years without urgent action. Kenya’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum has committed to reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030, a step toward renewable generation that will likely create project development opportunities.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, Kenya has tremendous renewables potential. Due to its position on the equator, Kenya has an especially high potential for solar generation—among the highest of Sub-Saharan African countries. This abundance of resources renders renewable systems economically competitive, especially considering the declining costs of renewable technologies.

In 2015, less than 1% of Kenya’s electricity came from solar, with most generated from fossil fuels, hydropower and geothermal energy, but the country has the potential to push that up to more than 7% by 2030. With that target in mind, the Kenyan government is working to ensure that the use of these resources is maximized by making modifications to its energy regulatory framework. 

“We are encouraging renewable energy technologies and (their) dissemination, but also combining mini-grids with solar PV systems,” Stephen Nzioka, deputy director of renewable energy at Kenya’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum told Thompson Reuters Foundation in July of 2020, adding that the government had removed import duty on solar products.

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