Sunday, May 13, 2012

Trendy Rural Electrification versus Practical Rural Electrification

Recently I was informed that Nyumbani Village will be the recipient of a solar garden that will provide 250 solar panels for electrification of the village. Exciting isn’t it? Imagine 250 solar panels in one of the most rural locations in Kenya, lighting up homes of families, allowing children to play games and study late into the night; a picture donors will just eat up. There are even plans for us to connect to the grid and sell the excess energy to the Kenyan government.

I would have been really excited about a project like this if I hadn’t lived in the village for 9 months. The truth is there are many easier, cheaper and environmentally friendlier options for the village. I thought I would list a few in the hopes that someone out there who reads my blog will, whenever there’s a decision to be made about energy sources, try to look at the whole picture as opposed to jumping at the “trendy” opportunity that is waved in front of them with such temptations as subsidies, fancy “21st century” technology and the oh so generous support of wealthy, ignorant donors.

My favorite energy source for Nyumbani is biofuel aka plant or vegetable oil. The residents of Nyumbani are well known farmers and we have sunflowers, castor seeds, moringa, jatropha among other oil crops that all grow well in this area. The farmers are quite experienced in growing these crops and a mill to extract the oil is simple and cheap to install; in fact we have a small hand powered one already. This mill can supply oil to the diesel generators converted to run on vegetable oil (a super simple and cheap process), which we already have installed in the village. This is technology the locals here know and understand. The generators, when they do eventually break down, can be sold and used for spare parts. An added benefit is that a generator is extremely hard to steal because it’s so damn heavy. And let’s not forget the average efficiency of a diesel engine is around 40% (solar ain’t coming close to that any time soon friends). We’re also sitting on 1000 acres of land, mostly unused, so we have the area to grow the fuel we need, reducing our carbon footprint as we increase our energy supply. This venture can also provide more jobs to extremely poor surrounding community members. These generators can be spread out in the community to provide electricity for the 100 homes in the village. A more centralized system could be set up for the schools. I like this idea because there’s no huge start up cost; we have most of what we need already. I also like that we would use technologies that are easy accessible in this area and we can find people with lots of experience to work on this system. Systems like these have been done in agriculture based developing countries such as Thailand; places I think Kenya should look at more than say, Germany.

My second choice would be connecting directly to the grid, the closest point of contact being roughly 8 km away from the village. The power for this region where Nyumbani is located comes from Masinga Dam, a huge hydropower plant that is underutilized in the area. Given this system is already in place, the government wants more people to connect to it and it’s a relatively environmentally friendly source of energy, it is a viable option for Nyumbani, especially since they’re planning on connecting to the grid to sell energy anyway. The risk would be centralizing the power source with the common issue of power cuts that plague many regions. I don’t think this will be a huge risk for Nyumbani though since every night, without a doubt, the lights of the nearest university, Kenyatta University, powered by the grid, light up on the horizon like a constellation. I can only recall the lights going out once for around 1 minute.

Why I don’t like the solar garden idea

Where to begin? Well, we’re bringing in a bunch of solar panels that are super expensive and require a ton of energy to make. If you were to look at the manufacture process of building a solar panel, you’re probably going to think twice about calling this technology environmentally friendly. Then you have the wonderful energy efficiency of umm…5%? If there’s a film of dust on the panel (remember we’re in a semi-arid region) the efficiency goes down to say 2%. I guess we can employ locals to clean the panels and guard them 24 hours…trust me, they’ll need tight security for these panels since solar panels are like gold here and they’re super easy to steal; we’ve already had solar panels stolen from us. I hope this solar panel garden comes with insurance. Probably my biggest issue with this project is with the batteries. We’re going to have a large bank of batteries that will be charged by solar power and these batteries, given my experience in the village so far, will need to be replaced roughly every two years. Can you imagine how many batteries that will be and the cost of this completely un-renewable component? And by the way, I haven’t seen one place yet that recycles batteries in Kenya, the batteries are thrown in rivers, left on the side of the road, used as a door stop, the list goes on. So getting solar panels means polluting Nyumbani with a load of lead acid batteries no one knows what to do with every two years. Did I mention we will have 1000 orphan children running around here by the end of this year?

So this is my take on whole energy issue in the village. It’s unfortunate that this idea for solar power got sold so easily to the management of Nyumbani Village but I think it’s representative of a lot of what goes on in poor, developing countries. Wealthy countries try to “help” poorer ones with trendy technology (probably providing a sweet tax break for themselves or some nice carbon credits) while uninformed receivers of this technology jump at any opportunity for help and development without looking at the whole picture. In the end I really hope this project works even though I don’t like it; the Nyumbani community has much to benefit from increased access to energy. I just hope they realize how much work it’s going to be in the long run and they figure out how to address the challenges they will face with this venture. Then again, they do have a lot of donor financial support to swallow up all the mistakes they make.


  1. So true. It's the whole "sexiness" versus "appropriateness" issue. I'm curious as to how they are planning on moving 250 solar panels to Nyumbani when you can only access it via foot or boda boda...

    Who is the donor? Have the panels been procured yet? Plans might not be set in stone and this is a pretty significant investment they're going to be making. Theoretically (hopefully!) they'll want to see measurable results. If you lay out a well-made argument, they may just well pay attention.

  2. Great Post About Trendy Rural Electrification.Thanks for the post, I will look forward to see more posts from your blog and Adpower Generators.