In Kenya, solar lights are a homework helper

Solar panels installed at schools in remote areas off the electric grid allow students to stay past dark and hit the books.

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    Elders in Samburu, Kenya, take shelter away from the searing sun while being entertained by a solar-powered radio.The electricity generated also ensures that school students can study well into the evening.
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The tolling of the evening bell signals the end of the day’s classes at Donyo Wasin primary school. For a few adept pupils like Sotik Leleno, however, it ushers in the time for their private studies under the glow of solar-powered lighting.  

Leleno is among a growing number of young Kenyans who are benefiting from a government initiative to position primary schools in rural areas as renewable energy incubation centers.

At Donyo Wasin, villagers take shelter under acacia shrubs from the scorching sun as early as 9 a.m. The Kenya Meteorological Department estimates temperatures can peak as high as 35 degrees Celsius (95 F.) in the area.

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But at Leleno’s school, the sun is an ally. The government’s Energy Regulatory Commission, in collaboration with partners, has installed solar panels on the school’s rooftops.

The electricity generated ensures that Leleno can study well into the evening.

“After school I would join my age mates to go and take care of livestock,” recalls the 12-year-old. “I now spend part of the evening doing homework at school. This was not possible at home.”

Like many parts of rural Kenya, Donyo Wasin, a village in the country’s Rift Valley region, remains unconnected to the national electricity grid. Poor roads and the long distance from the capital city – where energy connection decisions are made – have kept such comforts out of reach.

The Kenya Bureau of Statistics estimates that only 28 percent of Kenyans are connected to the national grid. And these lucky ones mostly live in urban centers, where there is easy access and good infrastructure, officials say.

However, working with communities, the government has passed a policy that aims to provide 60 percent of rural communities’ energy needs from renewable sources by setting up primary schools – where many members of the community meet and interact – as incubation centers for renewable energy. Leleno’s is one such school.

Leleno acknowledges that he is sometime feels lonely while studying away from his family home. But that that feeling could soon pass if the incubation centrs achieve their vision of sharing the power generated at schools with neighboring homes and other facilities, and providing other green sources of energy, effectively creating “climate villages.”

“The idea is to equip climate villages with solar, wind, and biogas units to not only promote learning but also to serve the community,” explained Peter Odhengo, a treasury official.

According to Odhengo, a single megawatt of solar energy can power approximately 150 climate villages, depending on the level of consumption. But it is also costly to install, with a single megawatt of capacity costing about $2 million, he says.

International funds are helping pay the cost.

“This investment is provided for under international conventions,” he said. “We are partnering with developed countries to invest in this project because it is part of solving the problem of global climate change.”

The Africa Technology Policy Studies Networks (ATPS) says Kenya is on track to transition into a new low-carbon global development agenda, which aims to meet energy needs without putting pressure on the environment in order that future generations will benefit too. 

According to Kenyan officials, Kenya is one of the countries where the adoption of renewable technologies like solar home systems is highest in the world, trailing only China in terms of demand.

Nicholas Ozor, an official with ATPS, links the boom to a government policy which does not tax low-carbon technology.

By his estimation, unless a change in policy affects that current rate at which renwables are being adopted, Kenyans living on the margins will be the biggest beneficiaries of solar energy, because arid lands have reliable sunshine throughout the year.

“People living in very remote areas cannot access the national grid system, hence renewable energy is their only option,” Ozor pointed out.

Not everyone is convinced. Critics argue that the current solar panels affordable in rural areas have the capacity to store only about 10 to 15 percent of the solar energy they capture, and are not efficient enough.

According to George Mwaniki of the National Environment Trust Fund, solar energy is not viable for small-scale investors because currently available systems would need to generate 10 times more energy to create a sufficient return on the investment. 

“I think biogas is a perfect choice for producing alternative energy,” argued Mwaniki, who is also the director of research and publications at his agency. “But more research is being done to come up with locally viable ideas for renewables.”

The Energy Regulatory Commission says more than 1,000 primary schools earmarked for the climate villages project have been fitted with solar installations. But officials say biogas and wind power units are also lined up for the incubation centers.

More like Leleno are counting on such flows of clean energy spending from the national government. But even with headway being made toward renewable energy, few reckon that the government will succeed without the help of development partners such as the Africa Development Bank, the World Bank, and United Nations agencies.

“We appreciate the efforts of our partners because the government cannot by itself lift the standards required in marginalized parts of Kenya,” said Augustine Lembuonamati, a member of the Samburu district development committee.

• Kagondu Njagi is a freelance contributor for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, based in Nairobi and writing on climate change issues. This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

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