Pioneering solar nano-grids will start generating electricity for two impoverished communities in Kenya next month, marking the first step in a venture that hopes to empower the country’s largely off-grid population.
The solar nano-grids will allow more than 120 households in the western-Kenyan villages of Lemolo B and Echareria to ditch polluting kerosene lamps, charge their phones and radios and also power small business, including mills and chicken incubators. The grids were developed by the global non-profit environmental enterprise Intasave in cooperation with Oxford University and the University of Loughborough.
“Kenya has the population of about 40 million and out of that nearly 30 million people don’t have regular access to electricity,” explained Arran de Moubray, Head of Renewable Energy at INTASAVE Energy. “That means that there is a huge potential for our technology.”
De Moubray describes the system developed by Intasave as charging hubs rather than microgrids. To make it as easy as possible to maintain, the firm chose to use direct current instead of the alternating current that underpins modern electrical networks.
“We have 3kW of solar panels situated in a central point within a community that is going to serve 64 households but also local business services such as grinding mills, chicken egg incubators or internet hubs,” de Moubray said.
“From these 3kW of solar, we will charge large battery units, which in turn people will use to charge their smaller home accumulators, which we have designed as well.”
When Intasave first approached the villagers, they were excited, de Moubray said. Within the first days, more people signed up for the schemes than the pilot projects would be able to connect.
"This area is about 11km from the nearest town. To get kerosene, which is the fuel they use for almost everything, people have to either use bicycles or get lifts with outgoing traffic,” de Moubray described.
“The pricing, which we offered to them was based on what they spent for kerosene and at under $1.50 per week is actually less than what a household would pay for kerosene.”
Moreover, the technology does away with the pollution caused by kerosene-burning appliances, which could be a major health risk in households.
Some of the wealthier villagers had solar panels installed before, but the projects largely ended in disappointments.
“Most of these systems are not working as they were installed by people that the villagers have never seen again,” de Moubray remarked. “There was also a government scheme to provide power to all primary schools in Kenya and one of the two communities has got power delivered to the school, but politics being what it is, people can’t afford to connect their households and their machinery to that because it’s too expensive.”
Part of the Intasave offer to the communities is a five-year management and service period, for which Intasave’s technicians will make sure the systems are running smoothly and that all problems are immediately fixed. During those five years, the technicians will train local people to manage and repair the system themselves.
“We asked the communities to democratically create what we call Village Energy Committees,” de Moubray explained. “These committees have between 12 and 15 members and they are responsible for making sure that everyone pays on time and that any issues are addressed immediately to us. On our side, we make sure that if something happens that comes through them or that comes through our remote monitoring, that we address that issue very quickly.”
Simplicity and the ease of maintenance was a major design driver for the project and also the reason for using DC instead of the generally more common AC.
“We have solar panels, we have charge controllers, but we don’t need things like inverters, which, in the middle of nowhere, if something goes wrong with an inverter then you have a problem, because you don’t have a qualified electrician who would repair it or test it, you don’t necessarily have a spare inverter nearby,” said de Moubray. “With this system, we have the ability to swap up panels very easily, we use charge controllers supplied by local third parties who have operation and maintenance people at hand. That’s really the most technical part of it.”
Intasave also helped to design DC-powered mills that could replace existing diesel-powered devices used by the communities.
“They run more efficiently than the mills that the communities were using before,” said de Moubray. More importantly, they don’t produce any pollution, which is a major problem of the diesel-powered ones. They are used inside small buildings and the people who work there have problems with their eyes and lungs as a result.”
Intasave said seven additional installations across Kenya have already secured funding and the firm hopes to deploy the technology on a far larger scale in the future.