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Leaving Fuel-based Power Behind

Sustained vigilance on quality is a key to low-cost solar to meet energy needs in developing countries.
Solar-powered electricity is rapidly gaining ground as a source of light for rural families in many developing countries that is at once low-carbon and market-driven. This is a win-win-win solution in the works?ood for the poor, good for the climate, and good for the PV manufacturers. But it depends on quality performance standards for PV suppliers supported by sustained testing to instil consumers’ confidence, and lay a foundation for a competitive market.

By Daniel M. Kammen




For Africa’s poorest families, lighting is often the most expensive item in their budget, typically accounting for 10-15% of total household income. The energy poor in Africa spend about US$17 billion a year on fuel-based lighting sources. To put the full energy sector in perspective, independent estimates place worldwide spending on fuel-based lighting in developing countries at US$38 billion.1)

Beyond household use, commercial use of fuel-based lighting can have even more acute economic impacts. Fishermen on Lake Victoria in Kenya, for example, often spend half their income for the kerosene they use to fish at night. Yet, while consuming a large share of scarce income, fuel-based lighting provides little in return. Fuel-based lamps, such as kerosene lamps, are costly, inefficient, and provide poor lighting. The smoke they emit causes respiratory and eye problems, while the flames from kerosene lamps are responsible for thousands of severe burns among children every year, along with untold numbers of devastating house fires.

But many African countries are making strides to put fuel-based power behind them. Kenya, for example, has one of the largest and most dynamic per capita solar PV markets among developing countries, with over 300,000 households having installed solar PV systems since the mid 1980s. Since 2000, annual sales for these systems have regularly topped 15%, and they account for roughly 75% of all solar equipment sales in the country. In addition, exciting and rapid developments in off-grid lighting with highly efficient long-lasting Light Emitting Diodes (LED) lamps are also changing the set of options in formerly neglected markets.2)

The rapid spread of this off-grid green energy solution in a low-income country is all the more remarkable as it is propelled by unsubsidized market demand. With Kenya’s electricity grid largely dependent on expensive hydropower, only 5.2% of rural households use electricity, and most of these are relatively well-to-do.3) Solar is a comparatively low-cost alternative, especially for families whose poverty puts grid-based electricity out of reach. Manufacturers and importers have noted the business opportunity and are coming up with products that, they say, will fill the gap. They are focusing on affordability, the green agenda, and renewability of power sources.

With Kenya’s government having set 2017 as a deadline for the country to make significant advances in green in power generation, the stage is set for the solar PV sector to deliver household systems to a national market that is intended to be able to absorb a million of them a year, according to the International Finance Corporation.


Long-term Support, Engagement, and Product Quality are Key Factors


While the commercial success and potential of PV companies in Kenya justifiably boost enthusiasm among consumers, investors and entrepreneurs, a cautionary note is in order. In the mid 1990s, Kenya’s PV market faced a threat over problems with low-quality amorphous silicon (a-Si) modules, which were indistinguishable from high-quality modules.4) It was not clear at first if this performance gap related to inherent properties of the solar technology or to issues in the manufacturing and/or field performance.5) Ads in local newspapers sparked a heated debate about quality, consumer rights, and the ethics of negative advertising.

In 1999, private studies on performance of the solar modules for sale in Kenya indicated which brands were performing well, and which were not.6) This information--published in local newspapers and regional trade journals by the research team from a local energy consulting company, and research team from Princeton University and then the University of California, Berkeley--had a major impact on the industry, inducing manufacturers to improve product quality. These efforts coincided with the market moving back into a period of rapid growth.7)

Years after the 1999 study, a new line of low performing a-Si modules began to enter the market in significant quantities. The approach to weeding out these panels was a close repeat of the earlier episode.8) Figure 1 reproduces a 2004 Kenyan newspaper ad aimed at promoting one company’s product by contrasting it with the shortcoming of another’s. Re-emergence of quality problems in the Kenya market confirmed that the issue could not be settled decisively by one-time testing efforts, or by focusing on the improvement of individual low performing brands. Rather, institutional solutions requiring sustained high performance for all brands are needed to ensure quality.


As a result of these events, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KBS) collaborated with the Kenya Renewable Energy Association to draft performance standards for a range of solar products, including a-Si modules. The government drafted and adopted new standards, drawing heavily from codes established by the International Electrotechnical Commission.9)

However, because the KBS lacked access to all of the necessary equipment and technical capacity to carry out all specified tests, continued involvement of local solar groups and international academic teams was critical to refining--and occasionally enforcing--the Kenyan national solar standards. The move to adopt national performance standards was a positive step towards institutionalized quality assurance. Still, the adoption of un-enforced standards requires continued vigilance and partnerships among research and testing groups, the solar industry, and the government.

This is all the more important in light of the Kenyan government’s forward-looking decision in October to introduce legislation requiring all new buildings to install solar heating panels. The mounting of the panels is one of the requirements in Kenya’s proposed building code, which will oblige households or commercial enterprises that use a lot of hot water to fit solar systems to their energy needs.10)

This Kenya solar story shows that an ‘enabling environment’ for a clean energy technology will likely need to remain nimble and to evolve during or even after the PV solar market begins to expand. Second, there is often a need for continued assessment and analysis to build what initially can be fragile renewable energy markets, and science and engineering inputs can be critical at many stages of the evolution of a RE system and market.


China’s Inspirational Example


The quality issue has arisen in China too, where the number of PV manufacturers has soared to 528 from just five in 2000.11) A renewable energy project in which the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility provided financing and technical assistance supported a successful initiative led by China to build a market for solar photovoltaic and wind energy technologies almost from scratch.

The World Bank-supported renewable energy development program has enabled sales of over 402,000 PV Solar-Home Systems (SHS) to rural families in remote areas of West and North-West China. About 1.6 million people, who live in tents at least part of the year and who previously had little access to electricity, now have an improved quality of life through better light, communications and entertainment, with portable systems made to fit their semi-nomadic lifestyle.

The program supported China’s initiative to promote rapid growth of the PV industry, and helped improve quality of production while keeping costs low. The market for solar home systems was greatly expanded, and a network of suppliers, wholesalers and retailers was fostered. PV systems, concentrated initially on households, are now powering public facilities such as  schools, health centers, village satellite telephones, forest protection, road maintenance, climate monitoring and Buddhist temples.

In addition, as a result of improving product standards and building a competitive market, the cost of PV systems in China has been halved and solar PV modules made by several Chinese manufacturers now compete internationally.12) The China Renewable Energy Development Project was recognized with an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy in 2008.13)

China’s inspirational example of success and the continuing expansion of the Kenyan solar market suggest great promise for clean energy’s economic prospects. With high-quality standards in force and emerging PV companies able to meet them, along with increased integration of energy markets in Africa, Kenya could well generate economic growth while promoting a low-carbon energy future for itself and its trading partners. 


Daniel M. Kammen is the Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency ‘the clean energy czar’ at the World Bank (www.worldbank.org). He is also the Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley (on leave) in the Energy and Resources Group, the Goldman School of Public Policy, and in the Department of Nuclear Engineering. He serves in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.



1) International Finance Corporation & Global Envrionment Facility, Selling Solar - Lessons from More than a Decade of IFC’  Experience. (Washington, DC: IFC, 2007), 23.

2) The Lumina Project (http://light.lbl.gov/).

3) Global Energy Network Institute http://www.geni.org/globalenergy/research/ruralelectrification/casestudies/kenya/index.shtml

4) Duke, et al., 2000; Hankins, 2000; Duke, Jacobson and Kammen, 2002.

5) (Staebler and Wronski, 1977; Duke, et al., 2000; Hankins, 2000; Duke, Jacobson and Kammen, 2002; Fairman, et al, 2003.

6) Jacobson, et al., 2000.

7) Jacobson, Duke and Kammen, 2001; Jacobson and Kammen, 2007.

8) Duke, Jacobson and Kammen, 2002.

9) IEC, 2001.

10) Solar panels to be mandatory in buildings, Capital Business, Business and Politics in East Africa, Oct. 29, 2010; http://www.capitalfm.co.ke/ business/Kenyabusiness/Solar-panels-to-be-mandatory-in-buildings-4923.html

11) China Daily, Oct. 29, 2010.

12) World Bank, China and the World Bank - A Partnership for Innovation (Washington, DC: 2007), 34-5.

13) http://www.ashdenawards.org/media/international_winners_2008



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