By Maina Waruru
NAIROBI, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya is moving to boost its solar energy capacity, with a new plant now under construction aiming to start producing electricity for the national grid by January 2016.
This heralds a shift in the balance of the country's efforts to embrace renewable energy, which have so far focused on hydropower, geothermal and a small amount of wind.
Independent power producer Greenmillenia Energy Limited(GEL) has said it will begin generation at its 40 megawatt (MW) solar plant in Isiolo County in northern Kenya in a year's time.
"This project represents a sustainable renewable energy investment, which allows both (GEL) and the government of Kenya to take a lead in the global clean energy revolution," Bartholomew Simiyu, GEL's advisory director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It sends the right signal for clean energy investments in Kenya," he added.
The company has presented the required technical, environmental and financial assessments to the government, and has acquired a generating license from the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), Simiyu said.
It is negotiating with electricity distributor Kenya Power on tariffs ahead of the 2016 generation start date.
The GEL plant will cost $86 million to build and is being financed by the Export-Import Bank of China, with the African Development Bank expected to come on board later.
Another solar plant of the same capacity is planned on the outskirts of Eldoret by Alten Kenya Solarfarms, which has Spanish backers, although it is unclear when production will begin.
Kenya - where geothermal now rivals hydro as a major source of power - is racing to reach total installed capacity from all energy sources of 5,000 MW by 2018.
Kenya's new solar plants, once finished, would eclipse the size of others in East Africa. Currently the biggest is Rwanda's Agahozo solar farm, with capacity of 8.5 MW, equivalent to 7 percent of the tiny nation's installed capacity.
Simiyu said the GEL plant would deliver reliable and predictable power to Kenya's grid at a fixed price for a minimum of two decades, and bring other social and economic advantages.
Local communities would benefit from jobs for those with construction and engineering skills, and neighbouring villages and public institutions would gain access to electricity, expanding their opportunities, he said.
The company - which also has operations in Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda - is carrying out site surveys in different parts of Kenya, with a view to generating 360 MW of power from solar and wind in the next 15 years, Simiyu said.
Studies by the ERC have indicated that Kenya receives 4 to 6 kilowatt hours of sunshine per square metre each day. But very little has been harnessed to generate power on a large scale.
While tens of thousands of solar photovoltaic panels have been installed at individual homes and public facilities, they only tap an estimated 20 MW of power, ERC figures show.
According to Pavel Oimeke, the ERC's head of renewable energy, this represents less than 1 percent of solar energy potential in a country where the World Bank estimates just 28 percent of 40 million residents are connected to the grid.
Joseph Mbithi, another ERC official, said there are 19 micro-grid solar systems in operation, all run by Kenya Power. They only have capacity of 19 MW, but provide back-up to thermal generators in remote northern towns.
Kenya has been hailed as an African leader in exploiting its geothermal resources. But this has not been the case for solar and wind.
Last year, another company, Bluesea Energy Limited, announced it would begin generating 40 MW of wind power in the central region of Meru in late 2015. That would come ahead of the 300 MW Lake Turkana Wind Power project, which hopes to begin production for the national grid in 2019.
The Lake Turkana scheme is being developed by a consortium of African, British and Danish companies, with backing from Scandinavian state development funds.
If the Greenmillenia, Alten and Bluesea projects progress as planned, they would jointly generate some 120 MW of solar and wind energy to help power Kenya's growing economy. That would put the country firmly on the map of the low-carbon transformation taking root in parts of the developing world.
A more diverse renewable energy mix can help maintain power supplies as weather and climate conditions shift, said George Frambo, a consultant with U.S.-based firm Clark Engineering.
Hydropower production, for example, can dip when reservoir levels drop during dry periods.
"Changes in weather conditions - be they global or local - cannot affect all of these resources in the same way at the same time," Frambo said.
(Reporting by Maina Waruru; editing by Megan Rowling)