Opinion & Analysis

KenGen solar plant plan is way to go for new power projects

The usage of solar energy is vital in taming climate change and its devastating effects. file photo | nmg
The usage of solar energy is vital in taming climate change and its devastating effects. file photo | nmg  

A news item last week indicated that Kenya Electricity Generating Company #ticker:KEGNis planning a 45 mega watts(MW) solar power installation in Embu County adjacent to the existing Tana hydro plants.

As of now most of the solar energy activities in Kenya have been small-scale and for own energy use with none injected into the national grid.

The only other significant operational project in the region that I am aware of is the 10 MW solar plant at Soroti in Uganda. It is grid-connected and privately financed.

The proposed KenGen installation will indeed be a pioneer project in up-scaling solar generation in Kenya. What is smart about the project concept is its location adjacent to an existing power transmission infrastructure from the hydro plants to the main electricity demand markets.

For this project, capital costs associated with power transmission will be minimal. The ongoing story of the stranded Turkana Wind power due to a stalled transmission project demonstrates how expensive power transmission can be.

Locating solar generation adjacent to existing transmission infrastructure is a technical concept that can be borrowed for similar “sunny” locations.

I have in mind areas like Naivasha located in the geothermal generation zone where sunshine is as plentiful as the lower parts of Embu county.

Solar projects have quick completion timelines as assembly of panels is a quick job with minimum civil works.

Further, solar projects have fewer negative environmental and community impacts than the other types of generation. For example the Embu project will occupy only 80 acres of land, which is not a big challenge. Finally, plenty of “green” global funding is pursuing solar investment opportunities provided of course that the feed-in tariffs are sustainably attractive.

Solar generation is obviously limited to daylight times and as such its supply will need to be sufficiently synchronised with the other base-load (24 hour) sources like geothermal, hydro, and thermal to cushion peak demands for electricity which are between nightfall and bedtime.

By the way, the battery storage technology has recently been stretched to a level where it is now possible to install battery arrangements with as much as 100MW storage capacities, which can allow injection of daylight solar generation into the grid during times of peak demands.

Over time, up-scaled battery storage technology will be a game changer in commercialisation of solar generation globally.

The power generation mix in Kenya today is 35.2 per cent hydro, 34.5 per cent thermal, 28 per cent geothermal with wind power just emerging at 1.1 per cent, but expected to increase when the 300MW generation from Turkana Wind is finally connected to the market.

The planned Embu solar installation will definitely permit solar power to pop-up in the pie-charts of national energy generation mix.

What remains a challenge for Kenya is how to accelerate generation capacity for base load renewable energy, and I am here talking about geothermal.

The other renewable is hydro and this is severely handicapped by seasonal hydrology fluctuations, while policies limit expansion of “imported” non-renewable thermal energy.

Therefore, solar generation can only grow in rhythm with geothermal growth. This is of course until battery storage technologies become technically and economically viable to allow use of daylight solar energy during night peak periods.

In the meantime we need to develop sufficient flexibility for local mini-solar investors to inject surplus generation into the grid. This is becoming a popular arena for rural institutional demands especially by development NGOs.

Solar and wind energy are the fastest growing forms of renewable energy globally.

Advances in technology have lowered unit costs thus allowing production up-scaling.

“Green energy” funding is specifically prioritising these two renewable energies assisted by policy and regulatory support by governments as they implement the Paris Climate accord.

What of course matters most to the domestic, commercial and institutional users of electricity in Kenya is the bottom figure on their monthly electricity bills. They are less concerned about where the generation comes from.

To the majority of end-users, “green” stories are mostly academic and irrelevant. All they aspire to are lower prices. And so far this has not been a consistently strong story.