Article written by Arne Jacobson
Kenya is a world leader, on a per capita basis, in the utilization of solar photovoltaic systems. Solar power provides the main source of electricity for more than 5% of Kenya’s rural population, and sales of solar products in Kenya continue to grow.
Although these high use levels indicate a robust renewable energy sector, quality issues have long been a concern in the Kenya solar market. As is true in many Sub Saharan African countries, market institutions for ensuring quality are weak in Kenya. As a result, while most solar products sold in the country perform adequately, some of the products sold in the market perform well below advertised levels. This persistent presence of low quality goods is a problem not only for rural Kenyans unlucky enough to purchase the “wrong” PV module or battery, but also for the reputation of the solar industry.
SERC faculty member Arne Jacobson has been involved in efforts to address and correct quality problems in the Kenya solar market since 1999. This ongoing work has involved field and laboratory testing of solar modules from the Kenya market over a number of years, as well as collaborative efforts to build quality assurance mechanisms for solar products sold in the country. The results of this work, including a successful effort in 2004/05 to remove the lowest performing modules from the market, are chronicled in a recent article titled “Engineering, Institutions, and the Public Interest: Evaluating Product Quality in the Kenyan Solar Photovoltaics Industry.” The article, which was published in the Energy Policy journal in 2007, was co-authored by Jacobson and Daniel Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley. (A PDF version of this article is available at www.schatzlab.org/publications.html.)
SERC is now engaged in a parallel effort associated with the emerging use of high efficiency off-grid lighting systems based on white light emitting diode (WLED) technology. This work, which involves collaboration with Evan Mills of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), includes laboratory testing of a number of WLED product lines, as well as field work and collaborative discussions with partners in Kenya.
The emergence of WLED technology for off-grid applications in places like Kenya is linked to a sharp decline in prices combined with a similarly dramatic increase in the electricity to light conversion efficiency of the devices. The resulting off-grid lighting systems are viewed increasingly as potential substitutes for the fuel based lighting systems that are used commonly in Sub Saharan Africa and elsewhere around the world.
Lighting systems based on this emerging technology have the potential to provide superior lighting services at prices that are affordable to many in off-grid areas of developing countries. In cases where WLEDs are used as a substitute for kerosene lighting, the technology also has the potential to provide significant health and environmental benefits in the forms of improved indoor air quality, reduced fire hazards, and – perhaps – lower greenhouse gas emissions.
While the potential for beneficial uses of WLED technology may be promising, the challenges that must be overcome to realize this opportunity are significant. One important issue involves efforts to ensure the quality of off-grid lighting systems based on WLED technology. This is important both to protect those who purchase off-grid lighting systems from fraud and to avoid problems of “market spoiling” in which the reputation of all WLED products are damaged by the presence of some low performing devices.
SERC’s initial work in this area will be outlined in a set of forthcoming publications that will be available from www. schatzlab.org/publications.html.