Can Kenya Light the Way Toward a Clean-Energy Economy?- page 3 | Science | Smithsonian
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A young Maasai stands in front of a wind turbine on the Ngong Hills in Kenya. (© Frederic Courbet/Corbis)

Can Kenya Light the Way Toward a Clean-Energy Economy?

The absence of a robust fossil fuel infrastructure makes the African nation ripe for energy innovation

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(Continued from page 2)

The first pilot project, planned for later this year, will place the concentrating system’s solar-tracking mirrors, or heliostats, among the bushes in the existing tea fields—a kind of triple-cropping arrangement that produces tea along with 1 megawatt of electricity and 2.5 megawatts of heat. The heat is used in the drying facility, reducing dependence on wood-fired heat, and the electricity provides power to 7,000 on-site homes. Bøhmer estimates that the project will have a four-year payback period.

In the northern part of the country, Kenya Power has 10 microgrids with capacities ranging from 5 to 10 megawatts in pilot phase. Most of them were built in off-grid areas using diesel generators over the past several years; today, the utility is beginning to add a solar resource to the mix. During the day, solar power feeds directly into the regional distribution network, and at night, diesel generation fills the gap.

“Operating diesel plants becomes very expensive and unsustainable,” says Kenya Power’s Ngahu. “We are eventually going solar throughout.”

Terry Mohn, CEO of General Microgrids, which has offices in Nairobi and San Diego, California, advocates for “opportunistic” microgrids that leverage a wider range of local energy resources, such as solar, biogas, or small-scale hydro. No matter what the energy source, microgrids can provide reliable shared energy infrastructure while slashing the need for large-scale transmission infrastructure.

Efficiency first

If these efforts seem small, that’s because they are.

Kenya’s per-capita consumption of electric power in 2010 was less than one-tenth the global average for nations considered middle income, such as Argentina, India, and South Africa. Even with expanded generating capacity, the available supply for households isn’t likely to grow quickly. Because much of the planned growth in Kenya’s power is intended to support industrialization and tourism, limiting the growth of residential use will be critical to the success of the plan.

For that reason, one of the key “leapfrog” opportunities that may exist in Kenya is an opportunity to develop an energy policy where efficiency comes first. Implemented at the outset, efficiency efforts can give Kenya more bang for every buck it invests in new capacity.

One way to improve efficiency of the overall system is to meet some energy demands with heat instead of electricity. The central government has introduced programs aimed at spreading the use of solar thermal water heaters to harness the sun’s warmth for household water heating. Some innovators are looking for new ways to satisfy thermal needs on the industrial side, too. “Many industrial operations are still using wood fuel to power their boilers,” says Ernest Chitechi, Outreach and Partnership Manager for the nonprofit Kenya Climate Innovation Center, or CIC. As a substitute, the organization is working with entrepreneurs to develop a biomass briquette based on pineapple waste.

But the real challenge will be in controlling electricity usage where there is no substitute.

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