POWER AFRICA: Solar Bankers investigates Kenya for opportunities in solar – Part II

The General Situation – Electricity Supply and Urbanization

Issue #2: it is not the lack of energy, but a lack of access to the energy available. Kenya should primarily focus on extending its distribution infrastructures, not its production infrastructures.

Only 15% of Kenya’s population has access to electricity. To modernize and urbanize, raise living standards and further economic growth, rural electrification is essential. But Kenya is still struggling to figure out how exactly to do this. Methodologies differ in efficiency. And Kenya still has to familiarize itself with all technological possibilities.

Current debates about methods of electrification involve two primary possibilities: the extension of the major public grid and the establishment of local micro-grids. It is also important to consider who and what regions of the country are to be electrified. As already mentioned, 85% of the Kenyan population does not have access to electricity. Those that do have access live mainly in the large urban centers of Kenya such as Nairobi and Mombasa, whose connection through the public grid forms a kind of axis across western Kenya. So Kenya is not concerned with extending electrification to already urbanized population, but primarily to Kenya’s rural populations living in the northeast, of which only 5% have access to electricity. These rural populations (around 78% of Kenya’s total population) are significantly larger than those urbanized with access to the major public grid. So, in essence, those people in Kenya not yet connected to the grid, constituting the vast majority of Kenya’s population, live in isolated, dispersed, rural communities with only very limited infrastructural development. But with most Kenyan’s having no access to energy, and being aware of its ability to raise living standards, aggregate demand for electricity is considerable. Thusly there is considerable pressure on infrastructural development to extend electrification into precisely these rural, barely developed regions. For several reasons, which we shall elucidate forthwith, the preferred methodology involves the extension of the major grid to these communities. Solar Bankers believes this is not necessarily the most efficient course of action. We believe the Kenyan government should opt to center its development planning on the construction of micro-grids.

But great forces, both social and political, put themselves against the implementation of micro-grid solutions, and drive forward the solution of grid-extension. One of the main impediments to the development of micro-grids is a widespread distrust of these small-scale infrastructures. This involves most policy-makers, industrial authorities, and local rural residents perceiving the major grid to be more reliable than a micro-grid supply. To them, micro-grids seem independent from proper government control and regulation and, hence, seem less safe. So the majority of rural households demand access to the major grid to satisfy their electricity needs. But there is a major short-term problem with extending the general public grid to meet these needs. Because the large-scale extension of the public grid is only feasible in the long-term, the rapidly growing electricity-demand of these rural households and communities is currently only scarcely met. This unmet demand results in the increasing migration of rural residents into urban areas, seeking the reliable connection to the major grid. This raises poverty levels and exacerbates power shortages in urban areas – such as Nairobi or Mombasa – as ever more people access the already constrained grid. A fear of micro-infrastructures and an insistence upon grid-extension undermine the health of the Kenyan economy in the short-term.

But these reluctances and insistences drive infrastructural planning out of alignment with the organizational and economic nature of Kenyan society. These reluctances and insistences motivate the Kenyan government to plan an extension of the major public grid from the urban centers of Nairobi and Mombasa to the vast rural regions of eastern and northeastern Kenya. But the communities to which the grid is to be extended, in their rurality, are highly dispersed – a quality posing a significant obstacle to grid-extension. The economic efficiency of extending the major public grid will be low as distances between households render extension expensive but the people effectively connected will be few. The costs of this approach to electrification are disproportionate to the intended aim. They might even outweigh its economic benefits if the financial burden of grid-expansion encumbers the Kenyan economy and constrains its productivity. Thus, an extension of the public major grid, to achieve general electrification, is economically inefficient and barely feasible.

The solution should be micro-grid development – but of course reluctance to implement this solution is ubiquitous.


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