FOCUS AFRICA – Climate and energy policy in Kenya: a leading solar market, yet without a grid

Considered as one of the fastest-growing African states, Kenya is indeed experiencing a sharp increase in terms of both population and economy size. Currently inhabited by 86 million people, the country saw its population more than doubling during the last thirty years. The population growth rate proved relatively stable at 2.6 percent in 2015, after having reached its peak during the early 80s (3.8 percent in 1982). The demographic expansion has been followed, albeit to a different rhythm, by an impressive growth in the national GDP since 2002: it increased from USD12 billion to USD63 billion in 2015; a similar pattern occurred for the per-capita value. Such a quick increase in overall values did not lead to a better distribution of wealth among citizens – the inequality rate was already high and did not experience significant changes, according to recent GINI index evaluations by the World Bank. Despite those data, Kenya remains a low-income country, increasingly urbanized (only 11 million people live in big cities, but the urbanization trend proved positive during the last twenty years), and badly connected in terms of electricity: according to the World Bank, only the 23 per cent of Kenyan residents had full access to its utilization in 2015, among Africa’s lowest rates.

In terms of energy mix, the Kenyan outlook is dominated by traditional biofuels use and geothermal energy production. In the 2015 national total primary energy supply (TPES), the two sources account for 66.8 percent and 14.8 percent, respectively. Imported oil products accounted for 12.9 percent – excluding a share used for aviation bunkers. Domestic use and transportation absorb nearly two thirds of the produced biofuel and oil-produced energy. Large parts of the Kenyan inner territories are still not connected to the national energy grid and traditional heating methods dominate the local economy, with clear effects on CO2 emissions and deforestation because of the “overreliance on wood fuels”.

Kenya has, on the other hand, a long history in experimenting innovative photovoltaic energy technologies – despite solar energy production accounted only to 1GWh in 2015. According to sectoral studies, the origins of the national solar market are to be found in the 70s, when the first solar-powered systems had been installed to power signalling and broadcasting installations in remote rural areas.

The country belongs to the group of so-called “Sunbelt countries”, with a huge solar potential. According to data, solar energy alone could potentially provide almost a hundred times the electricity currently used in the country.

During the following decade, the Kenyan government engaged in solar electrification programs based on the use of local grids to power schools, water pumping engines and vaccine refrigeration systems. A local marked emerged, with small private producers offering affordable energy to households and small enterprises, sustained by constantly falling prices. Battery-based systems were commercialized in order to power private television and radio devices – later, the same technology was applied to mobile phone chargers.

The rate of diffusion of such off-grid small solar installations is still higher for private use than for public grid investments, with residential solar home systems (SHSs) representing the biggest segment. A 2012 government regulation made solar water heaters (SWHs) mandatory for new buildings by 2017.

Those developments made the Kenyan solar market a case-study: Kenyan SHS installed capacity accounted for 10 percent of global production in 2013 (second only to China), and 40 percent of all installed SHSs in Africa in the same year. The Kenyan solar energy industry is a continental leader in terms of production and commercialization, second only to the far more industrialized Republic of South Africa.

Dedicated studies expect a continued increase in terms of sales and installation, under the hypothesis that the central government will not pursue any effective rural electrification policy: a future connections of rural households to the traditional grid could determine the desertion of domestic solar energy systems. Similar market distortions can originate from badly shaped international aid projects: criticism arose, for instance, about a joint energy investment plan between the Kenyan government and United States-based corporation SkyPower in 2016. Furthermore, according to a 2014 study Kenyan leaders are suffering “misperceptions” about the current price of solar technologies applied to a large scale, reportedly perceived as too high. Partially, the same study explained the lack of government-led investments with a high degree of corruption, the lack of true political will by national authorities, and capital constraints. Specific field studies showed how the latest element could negatively influence spontaneous local investments in absence of relevant international funding.

Will Kenya undergo a national energy mix restyling, given its experience with domestic renewable energy systems? The expansion of geothermal, solar and wind energy production is one of the explicit goal of the country’s INDC, as issued in July, 2015. Other goals are the enhancement of energy and resource efficiency, to obtain progresses in terms of tree-covered land area, to reduce the over-reliance on wood fuels through clean energy technologies, the development of a low carbon transportation sector and measures towards a climate-smart agriculture. All those mitigation measures, provided international financial, technology and capacity building support, are supposed to lead to a reduction in GHG emission by 30 percent by 2030, compared to a business as usual scenario.

Along with mitigation objectives, Kenya also committed to substantial adaptation actions relying on a previous national framework: plans and roadmaps adopted by the government between 2010 and COP21, such as the intersectoral National Adaptation Plan (NAP), which is in turn part of the broader Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP) issued by the Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources in 2013. The CCAP outlined a clear roadmap, with the country seen as capable of different positive actions along the path to a substantial reduction of its emissions by 2017 and beyond. The overall estimated cost of action for the 2013-2017 period was USD12.7 billion.

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Adaptation will play a crucial role in the country’s near future. According to the NAP and the INDC, floods and water rising levels (among other effects) could seriously endanger the strategic tea and coffee productive sectors, with losses in GDP estimated at around 3 percent yearly.

The Republic of Kenya did participate to the adoption of the Paris deal, and later signed the Agreement on April 22, 2016, but has not yet ratified it. The country’s emissions currently account to 0.06 percent on a global level.


(Image: Farmer shows Feed the Future Kenya AVCD team her solar power in Opapo orange-flesh sweet potato site visit in Migori county. Photo credit: ILRI /Muthoni Njiru on Flickr)