According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7, countries should work towards access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all by 2030 as an enabler to social economic transformation.
Despite concerted efforts through various initiatives, electricity access remains a challenge with more than 700 million people globally without access - majority of whom (more than half a billion) live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Kenya is no exception with more than 20percent of its population without electricity access. In the recent years, the government has intensified its electrification efforts through last mile connection, growing access from 20percent in 2013 to the more than 70percent currently.
Enhancing access through grid extension is expected to plateau due to the high cost of connecting households that are distant from the existing network. This calls for alternative approaches towards electrification such as the use of mini-grids and solar home systems.
Mini-grids are electricity supply systems used to distribute electricity within a given area. The mini-grids are either connected to the main electricity network run by utilities such as Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) or isolated with own generation.
In the electrification context, most of the mini-grids are powered by solar, wind, hydro and diesel or a combination of the technologies supplying between 50 to 1,000 households.
In Kenya, mini-grids were first developed by the Government in the 1980s to supply Government administrative centres that were far from the main grid. Such towns supplied by these mini-grids include Lodwar, Mandera and Marsabit.
The initial mini-grids were mostly powered by diesel generators. Currently, public mini-grids are developed by Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation (REREC) and operated by Kenya Power with several private players entering the space.
The Kenya National Electrification Strategy (KNES) launched in 2018 identifies mini-grids as a key driver to universal access to electricity by 2022. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of the non-electrified population are to be reached through mini-grids and solar home systems.
Indeed, the $150 million Kenya Off grid Solar Access Project (KosapP) sponsored by the World Bank in partnership with the Kenyan Government is enhancing electrification in 14 of Kenya’s underserved counties through mini-grids and solar home systems.
It is expected that more than 150 solar powered mini-grids shall be developed by the end of the Kosap. In addition, there are more than 130 privately owned mini-grids in the pipeline, currently at various stages of development.
The mini-grid sector is further supported by other partners that include African Development Bank, KfW Development Bank, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ), EU Infrastructure Trust Fund, UKAID and Agence Française de Développement (AFD).
To realise intended objectives, the development of mini-grids needs to take place in a coordinated manner that ensures security to the investments and avoids duplication of effort.
The communities served by these mini-grids need to participate and own the projects under development with seamless approval of the initiatives. This calls for a robust policy and regulatory framework.
The mini-grid sector stakeholders in partnership with the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (Epra) have developed the draft Mini-Grid Regulations 2021. The draft regulations are built on the provisions of the Energy Act, 2019 and the mini-grid licensing guidelines developed by Epra in 2017.
They seek to establish a transparent regulatory framework that will support Kenya towards achieving its electrification goals. They are an essential ingredient towards a strong and aligned framework that will realise a stable environment for both the public and private sector investment in mini-grids.
These investments shall increase electricity connections in the country’s underserved areas.
The framework outlines the responsibilities of both the host county and the national government in approving mini-grid investments.
It is envisioned that once such investment is approved by the two levels of Government together with a community contract signed by the community to be served, the investor shall be allowed a period of one year to obtain a tariff approval from Epra and financing to build the mini-grid.
This serves as a model for ensuring tripartite participation of both community and government in project conceptualization and development. The tariff approved by Epra should not only be agreed upon by the end users but also allow the investor to earn a reasonable rate of return on the investment.
The applications for tariff approval shall be made through a standardised tariff model that has been developed as part of the regulation development process.
In constructing the mini-grids, standard technical guidelines are proposed to guarantee quality of service and safety of the electricity consumers. The need for compliance to technical standards is further enforced in the supply contracts between the service provider and the electricity consumers, and a service charter approved by Epra as part of operation license issuance process.
Other provisions include reporting requirements for quality-of-service monitoring and most importantly “what happens when the main grid encroaches a mini-grid area”.
Nickson Bukachi, senior renewable energy officer at the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority