Making Renewable Energy Work in Kenya

An Interview with Anne Wacera, an Electrical Engineer who works on electrotechnical standardization with a focus on renewable energy systems

By Mariga Thoithi

Anne Wacera, Electrical Engineer

As the fourth largest Sub-Saharan country, Kenya’s economy is set to hit Kshs 10.1 trillion by the end of the year, according to the IMF with energy being one of the country’s biggest concerns and growth points. With an installed grid capacity of 2,600 Mw and a government-dubbed ‘Last Mile’ project, which has doubled Kenya’s electricity connections in the past 6 years, Kenya is on course to be an energy powerhouse in the region and Africa-wide.

Ever since the President called for a clean energy grid by 2030, there has been a rush towards Kenya’s rich renewable energy natural resources, including geothermal energy, solar and wind energy. Kenya has invested heavily in the renewables sector while also ironically pushing for a coal plant in Lamu, Kenya, which would turn back the gains that the clean energy sector has made over decades.

Kenya’s energy sector has also faced challenges of mismanagement and corruption, such as the KPLC over-billing scandals leading to extremely high energy costs for both retail and corporate consumers. Kenya has the unique opportunity to be the biggest clean energy producer in the region, but there are a few challenges to that goal. We talk to one of Africa’s youngest renewable energy experts on the key milestones we have reached as a country, and the challenges and opportunities ahead.

The past few years have seen conversations around renewable energy as a solution to global warming/ in curbing emissions. Do you think that it’s possible to eventually make a 100% move to renewable energy?

Yes it is. The whole world will have to do it at one point or another because fossil fuels will get depleted. Kenya has geothermal, hydro, solar (for electricity and thermal systems), wind, biomass (sustainable extraction) etc., so yes, this is possible. With regard to industrialization, we don’t have to industrialize the way others industrialized and I don’t understand why we insist on a copy paste model when it comes to solving Kenyan issues. We shouldn’t reinvent the wheel but we shouldn’t also fix an 1800-era wagon wheel onto a 2019 vehicle. Times change and our industrialization should reflect that change but that requires research spending so African researchers can find African solutions to African problems.

Kenyans have for a long time been faced with increasing costs of electricity while on paper it seems that Kenya produces more than enough electricity. Why is that the case? What can be done to make electricity cheaper?

Kenya needs more electricity (we can argue about when), not less. What we have isn’t overproduction, it’s under-consumption. I know they sound the same but they aren’t. We need heavy consumers but we really can’t have that with, among other things, an aging infrastructure which leads to constant outages. In my opinion, this question should be rephrased to: why are we not setting up industries.

Our electricity bills are high for multiple reasons. I don’t know how to solve socially entrenched vices like corruption, which is a factor, so I’ll focus on what I know. Someone has to pay for the government’s effort to distribute electricity to rural areas. In the ideal scenario, when people get (consistent) electricity for the first time, they use it to buy new machines for their households and farms, considering that rural areas make up the majority of our population. If they don’t have money, they won’t buy the machines. If they have money, there still exists a knowledge gap on function, use, efficiency and maintenance.

One of the biggest hindrances to the move towards solar energy has been the high initial cost of investment. Solar energy to power a full house can cost hundreds of thousands of shillings. What can be done to lower it and do you see this happening in the near future?

The government should subsidize solar energy in the same way it subsidizes the national grid. Or the government could yank subsidies from the national grid. whichever we desire. Until then, we’ll need to hope that China, which is our main source of alternative energy equipment, manages to lower the costs of solar equipment further and the cost of batteries drastically. We’ll also have to use trained and EPRA registered technicians who can assure the lifetime of our systems through proper installation which will assure our return on investment.

What are the most exciting new renewable energy technologies that you’ve interacted with over the past year?

Electric mobility has so much promise, especially motorbikes and Tuktuke. Imagine if Nairobi only smelled like the burst sewers we jump over while walking. Minus all the pollution you’re inhaling which has probably landed you in hospital in the form of flu, headache, some lung disease, etc. Yes, pollution makes people sick.

While the world is moving away from coal, Kenya seems to be moving towards it through the proposed Lamu Coal Plant. What’s your opinion on the coal plant? Do you feel that Kenya needs it and that the energy it would generate would be worth the cost to the environment and community?

No and no. I feel like I need to add another no. Don’t even believe me, I work in Renewable Energy which means I’m biased. I asked for the honest opinion of someone I know who studied coal for steel plants during her PhD. The answer was no. The quality of coal in Kenya is subpar, the coal plant being built isn’t the kind used for steel. Geothermal is fine, thank you.

Any fun facts you would like us to know?

“Kama ya neighbour” is a good strategy for men’s watches and women’s dresses but avoid it at all cost when it comes to electrical systems and machinery.

Your village technician needs solar training. Ask your government to ensure s/he gets it. Add the 3 apprentices under her/his guidance.

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