Pico-hydro a new source of energy in Rwanda

Image: Pico Hydro Courtesy of Energy 4 Impact

The Government of Rwanda's (GoR) 'energy distribution agenda to all citizens' is still ongoing and various stakeholders are making the 563 MW target happen. The private sector is key during this process and the GoR has put in place a smooth working environment and facilities through EDCL, for instance, back in 2 years ago a largest solar power plant was inaugurated by GigaWatt Rwanda in partnership with the GoR, the latter highly supported the initiative towards its launch, this is a good example to showcase the political will to achieve the energy access target.

Normally, we are used to bigger hydro power plant projects which require a good amount of money to be completed. Currently in Rwanda Pico-hydro power plant projects are being carried out and it is particularly a promising sector of investment to many SMEs or individuals.

Energy 4 impact is playing a key role in supporting numerous renewable energy development initiatives. Boris from Cleanleap interviewed Victor Hakuzumuremyi, Scaling up Off-Grid Energy in Rwanda (SOGER) Program Manager at Energy 4 Impact to get a deeper insight of this new decentralized model of accessing energy at a local level.

Boris: What is a pico hydro power plant?

Victor: In Rwanda, ‘Pico-hydro’ refers to a power system with a capacity less than 50kW. Their advantage over other power systems is their cost-effectiveness and simplicity, and come in different designs, planning and installation processes. Recent innovations in pico hydro technology have made it an economical source of power that have proven useful in delivering clean energy to some of the world’s poorest and most remote places.

It is also a versatile power source enabling standard electrical appliances to be used and the electricity can be distributed to a whole village. Common examples of devices, which can be powered by pico hydro are light bulbs, radios, televisions, refrigerators, food processors, workshop tools, grain hullers or mills, and other agro-processing equipment.

Boris: Why is Energy 4 Impact supporting such an initiative?

Victor: Energy 4 Impact is a nonprofit organization that works to increase access to renewable energy and reduce poverty in developing countries. Energy 4 Impact is supporting small, isolated mini-grid projects, including small and pico hydro projects, providing electricity to rural communities and uplifting their economic wellbeing through productive use of energy. In addition, Energy 4 Impact supports local businesses that connect to the mini-grid projects, such as mills, video shows, barbers, etc., through entrepreneurship development programs, providing technical, financial and business development advice.

Energy 4 Impact looks at pico hydropower as an essential way to meet peoples’ basic electricity needs, especially those that live in rural and remote areas without access to the national grid. Pico hydropower is therefore an important source of energy which can improve living standards of people in rural, remote regions of Africa.

Boris: How does a pico hydro power plant work?

Victor: The general principle behind Pico-hydropower is that falling water has potential energy. As the water falls, that potential is converted to kinetic energy. This is then captured and stored as electricity. Every site that we develop makes use of some sort of water intake, often involving a small dam. The water then moves through a channel or intake pipe to a reservoir or tank, where particles that can potentially damage the turbine thrust out of the water. After slowing the water’s velocity and cleaning it, it is piped down a long, straight pathway of PVC piping to the powerhouse, which houses the turbine and electrical equipment.

The water flow is then concentrated into a jet. The jet is aimed at a turbine, which consists of buckets attached to a central axis. As the jet of water hits the turbine’s buckets, rotational mechanical power is generated, and the water is returned to the source via a tailrace that leads out of the powerhouse.

It is this rotational power that is converted into electrical power through a generator. Generators rely on the principle that rotating a magnet within a coil of wire, or vice versa, creates a current of electricity.

Boris: Why should people and government be interested in investing in setting up pico hydro projects? 

Victor: Rwanda’s government is working towards a target of 100% of the population having access to electricity by 2020. Due to the remoteness of many areas in Rwanda, the government will not be able to achieve this through connections to the national grid alone. Therefore, the government has put in place policies to facilitate increased access to electricity through off-grid electrification which includes the development of pico-hydro projects. The government has also played a role in facilitating private sector investment in pico off‐grid electrification systems in various ways and the provision of subsidies to private companies at the initial stage (of their investment). In Rwanda, there are relevant government bodies responsible for issuing permits to small pico hydro projects. These include the Energy Development Corporation Limited (EDCL), Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA), etc.

Investors see pico hydro projects as alternative sources of investment and can generate income and improve the economic welfare of the targeted population. However, pico-hydro and off grid projects in general are still a relatively new sector for many financial institutions, which limits their desire to lend. Energy 4 Impact has taken a lead in supporting private investors to understand and invest in the pico hydro sector. Energy 4 Impact is currently supporting 30 pico hydro developers to set up power plants through grant financing, linkages with financial institutions or other investors.

Boris: What is the cost effectiveness of a pico hydro power plant compared to other sources of energy?

Victor: Other than pico hydro, there are other off grid sources of energy in Rwanda. These are biomass and traditional sources used mostly in rural areas (kerosene, candles, torches and car batteries); and renewables such as solar (solar mini-grids, solar lanterns, solar home systems, etc.). Compared to other sources of energy, pico hydro development is capital intensive and takes time to develop (financial cost, electro-mechanical cost, civil works and distribution). However, despite its high upfront costs, it is sustainable and reliable in line with grid connection. It can supply power to hundreds of people at a time, has low operational and maintenance costs and a life span of up to 25 years. The other sources of energy mentioned are comparatively less capital intensive but do not provide a sustainable solution of access to energy and require upgrading or renewing (e.g. the batteries in a solar mini-grid or a whole Solar Home System (SHS)). Due to the reliable nature and capacity of pico hydro power, users can explore other productive uses that are important in developing rural enterprises and improving people livelihoods:

  • Businesses can operate late into the night, and register more sales,
  • Children can study in the evening,
  • Women would no longer have to travel for long distances.  

Boris: How many people have started pico hydro projects in Rwanda?

Victor: The development of Pico-hydro is at an early stage in Rwanda with a number of highly motivated entrepreneurs working in the sector. They have managed to achieve early results but without the support of organizations such as Energy 4 Impact, development of pico-hydro projects will be slow due to the capacity gap that exists. Out of the roughly 192 sites with high potential for pico hydro development, 21 have already been developed with Energy 4 Impact supporting development of a further 30.

Boris: Where else pico hydro projects have been successful or you have carried similar support experiences?

Victor: In Rwanda, we have not supported any to completion yet. We are, however, supporting 30 projects at the moment in Rwanda. Elsewhere in Africa, we have supported over 80 mini-grid developers on a variety of engagements from early stage through to operation and productive use. This includes extensive work with developers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Boris: Would you take us through a concrete example of a pico hydro power plant owner's journey? How has it benefited the surrounding communities?                                           

Victor: A while back, Mr Habimana Israel had built a pico-hydro facility to serve two nearby villages, Kabuga and Rudandi, in Kirehe district of eastern Rwanda, but due to a variety of problems, it hadn't worked and had fallen into disrepair.

The Energy 4 Impact team heard about this and approached him with some ideas on how to resuscitate the project. The team concluded that the whole system needed to be rebuilt from scratch, and so provided a technical design to do this. The team also identified an opportunity to improve local community buy-in to the project.

After many months of persuading the local people that a successful system could be built to supply their power needs reliably, the Energy 4 Impact team helped them to form a cooperative which now owns 43% of the project's equity (with Mr Habimana Israel owning the other 57%). Each cooperative member has agreed to contribute US$60 of upfront equity to the project. He or she can do this either with cash or by working a certain number of days on the construction of the project.

Energy 4 Impact team arranged the financing and structuring of the project, with a project company capitalized with equity from the cooperative and the developer, a grant from Sida. Construction is now underway, and the electromechanical equipment has been ordered. Civil works are underway, providing temporary jobs for up to 100 local people, and is targeted for completion in April.

Energy 4 Impact’s role is to provide advice and support to those entrepreneurs to help them with all the other things they need in addition to more power, in order to build their businesses successfully. This includes accessing capital to fund investment in new equipment, as well as advice on marketing, supply chains, etc.

Energy 4 Impact’s aim, by the end of the project, is not just that a new power supply will have been created. Nor only that there will be light in everyone's homes at night. Energy 4 Impact’s aim is for a healthier, wealthier and happier community. That is what energy for impact means.