NAIROBI, Oct 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Until almost
two years ago, James Mbugua, a farmer living in Karai, a village
on the outskirts of Kenya's capital, relied on kerosene to light
his house, and a car battery to power his television so he
wouldn't miss the news.
Part of the reason he couldn't plug into the power grid,
despite being so close to Nairobi and in an area where
electricity is readily available, is that he lives on government
land as a squatter, with no papers to show he owns the 70-foot
by 80-foot parcel where he has put up a makeshift house.
Now, however, he has found an alternative: An affordable
solar system to power his home.
"I could not go on like that and had to seek an alternative
way of lighting my house and I discovered that with only $150 I
could use solar to light my house and power the television plus
radio," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The money for the purchase, he said, came from a loan from
his community savings group, which asks members to contribute $5
a month and then offers loans from that pot of cash.
The father of five grown children is one of the millions of
people across Africa who are taking advantage of falling prices
of home solar panel systems to get cheaper, cleaner and more
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency
(IRENA), home solar systems in Africa can now provide
electricity for many households for as little as $56 a year - a
cost lower than getting energy from diesel or kerosene.
Of the estimated 600 million people living off-grid in
Africa, about 10 percent of them are now using off-grid clean
energy to light their homes, according to IRENA statistics.
"About 60 million people may be using off-grid renewable
electricity of some kind in Africa. That is about 10 percent of
those living off-grid," IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin
said at a recent off-grid renewable energy conference in
SOLAR, PHONES AND CASH
In East Africa alone, more than 350,000 people are now using
solar panels to light their homes and technologies such as
mobile phone-based money transfers to pay for the technology, he
said. That suggests renewable energy could be a major driver to
help the region meet a new U.N. Sustainable Development Goal to
provide universal access to electricity by 2030.
"Here in Kenya, we find ourselves at one of the global
epicenters of growth, where solar products combined with
pay-as-you-go models and mobile payment technologies are
breaking new ground in bottom-up electricity sector
development," Amin said.
According to Joseph Njoroge, Kenya's energy and petroleum
principal secretary, solar mini-grids - small-scale electricity
networks, sometimes combined with wind power as well - are
expected to play a major role in bringing electricity to
sparsely populated but vast northern Kenya, as well as to other
areas not connected to the national grid.
"We have a third of Kenya's population living in the
northern part of the country, which is also two-thirds of the
total area of the country, and it is here that we shall hugely
deploy solar mini-grids to attain universal access to power -
possibly even before the year 2030", Njoroge said.
Last August Kenya won $36 million in support from France to
put in place 23 mini-grid systems in northern Kenya that will
use solar panels, wind or a combination of the two.
60 PERCENT PRICE DROP?
IRENA predicts that ongoing renewable energy innovation,
including new business models and finance, will result in a 60
percent decrease in the cost of producing electricity from
renewable mini-grids in the next 20 years.
Such significant cost drops are being seen not just in
Africa but across the world, IRENA officials said. They
attribute the cost declines to technological innovations,
changes in regulatory policies and an improved investment
environment for private money.
Solar home lighting systems - which now cost about $120 for
a small-scale system in Kenya - have fallen by as much as 80
percent since 2010, according to IRENA. The agency noted that it
expects the trend to continue.
At the same time, investments in off-grid solar systems
globally grew by 15 times between 2012 and 2015, with $276
million spent on them in 2015.
Employment in the renewable energy sector worldwide hit 8.1
million jobs in 2015, an increase of 1.3 million compared to
2014, IRENA said. Solar panels led the way with 2.7 million jobs
In addition to lighting homes for the poor, off-grid
renewable energy is being used to power things like health and
education facilities, agriculture and water access - helping
achieve at least a dozen of the other new Sustainable
Development Goals, an IRENA report said.
(Reporting by Maina Waruru; editing by Laurie Goering:; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change,
women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)