Lori Lovely 2016-08-02 15:06:57
Education is important, states Kamal Gupta, head of renewable energy for Schneider Electric in East Africa, a global specialist in energy management and automation. Education is the key to nation building, he says, and to lifting people out of poverty by allowing them to compete in a global economy. But in a country where 77% of the 44 million inhabitants have no access to electricity, it’s not easy to get a good education, regardless of how important it is. While education is free at the primary school level in Kenya (officially the Republic of Kenya), one-third of the primary schools don’t have access to electricity, leaving 90 million students in the dark. The literacy rate is roughly 85%. Despite an advanced economy and an affluent urban minority, Kenya faces economic challenges. Lack of electricity in many parts of the country remains a barrier to development and prosperity. Connecting to the Future To help its citizens overcome that barrier, the government tasked the Rural Electrification Authority (REA) with the assignment of seeing that all public primary schools in Kenya have an electricity supply in preparation for the implementation of a global laptop program. Currently, the largest share of the country’s electricity supply comes from hydroelectric stations at dams along the upper Tana River. Geothermal facilities near Nairobi, a petroleum-fired plant on the coast, and electricity imported from Uganda also supply the region. It should be noted that shortages of electricity occur whenever drought reduces the water flow. Due to the remoteness of the school locations and the inability to connect to the grid, an off-grid solar power solution customized to the schools’ needs was necessary. “This region is far from the main cities,” elaborates Gupta. “It’s off the grid, completely dark. The grid can’t reach these areas. That was our motivation.” Schneider Electric Kenya designed an off-grid photovoltaics (PV) solution that consists of two PV inverters with solar charge controller. The first PV inverter is dedicated to supply energy for lighting application, and the second PV inverter is for computer. These PV inverters are supported by Deep Cycle Solar GEL batteries and Solar PV modules. Because Schneider Electric designed a solution for the project, the company was the preferred source as the technical partner, Gupta indicates. “The challenge was to imagine a solution customized to primary schools’ needs in Kenya in less than a few months,” explains Fola Esan, president of Schneider Electric. “Thanks to our internal engineering capabilities, our wide network of local entrepreneurs in Kenya, and our strong collaboration with the REA, we’ve developed an off-grid solar power backup, easy-to-install and maintain solution that provides power for light, but also for computers.” Every school will have lighting and power for IT: two different power supplies, one solution. Each of the 127 schools will use their new electricity to power 30 computers, 34 lamps, a printer, and 15 plugs to charge their cell phones, among other things. Education for All There were additional challenges, such as accessibility. Covering 224,445 square miles, Kenya lies along the Indian Ocean coastline with a warm, humid, and tropical climate and a varied topography. Schneider picked a couple of schools as a pilot for the program. “Each site had a different challenge,” recalls Gupta. “Some aren’t proper structures; there’s just a sheet for the roof.” That posed a problem when crews wanted to put solar panels on the roof. Many roofs had to be strengthened before crews were able to install the solar panels. Realizing that their “partners were not electricians,” Schneider trained local people to install and maintain the systems. It was another way to promote the technology aspect of the project. “Teachers are not engineers,” says Gupta. “We had several training programs for engineers. Someone from each school was taught how to maintain the system and regulate its usage.” Altogether, the company worked with approximately 20 contractors. Difficult access and a limited pool of trained personnel meant the system had to be simple to install, use, and maintain. “It was plug-and-play,” notes Gupta. The quick installation of two days was also a safety advantage. “All they had to do was connect the cable,” he adds. Since Kenya is near the equator and the sun is similar throughout the country, Schneider was able to package identical “kits” for each of the 127 schools. The kits consisted of 14 solar panels at 120 W for a dual system, two inverters of 2 kV, and 10 batteries. Standard items were chosen for the kits because they are more affordable and easier to maintain. The solar panels are warrantied for 25 years, but have been known to work for 40. The batteries have a life of up to five years. “They are simple to install and maintain,” reiterates Gupta. “That provides high value.” Power to the Future Between 2014 and 2015, the REA and Schneider Electric completed the project, bringing electricity to 127 rural schools throughout Kenya and providing access to energy for 45,000 primary school students. Feedback has been very positive from teachers, students, and parents, Gupta reports. “It’s had a big impact in this region where only 20% are connected to the grid. There was a serious need.” Reaction has been so favorable, he says, the schools have become sort of a community center for students to study in the evenings. This was the first application of its kind on this scale. “There were earlier projects, but they were smaller,” affirms Gupta. It’s been so successful that Schneider Electric is considering similar projects such as powering health centers, another necessary provider. In addition, other regions and countries are reviewing the project’s progress and success with an eye to adopt similar applications. “Several counties are taking the initiative,” reveals Gupta. The solution developed by Schneider Electric for this endeavor is replicable and customizable for any similar electrification project in Africa, making it an attractive proposition. Gupta believes Schneider’s price, reliability, and durability make theirs a truly viable access-to-energy solution for off-grid electricity. BE Winner of several Society of Professional Journalists awards, Lori Lovely focuses on topics related to technology.
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