Reducing Food Prices through Renewable Energy: Solar-Farming in Kenya

Solar farms photo at Williamsons Team farm in Changoi, courtesy of: Solarcentury.

Kenya is a first in many a renewable energy innovation. The country houses a number of solar-energy innovations that touch on, among other sectors, agriculture and the retail sector. Agriculture, being the backbone of the Kenyan economy, and an employer of 75% or thereabouts of the entire country’s workforce, remains an important sector in the country. The International Energy Agency (IEA) observes that by 2050, solar energy could be the top source of electricity, generating up to 16% of the world's electricity - Kenya is certainly not an exception to these statistics. 

The use of photovoltaic panels would pervade nearly all facets of our household, industrial and commercial processes. High energy costs, among other production overheads places a strain on the incomes of smallholder farmers’ the world over, and as a direct cost on food production, translates into high food costs. How much would a fully-commercialized agricultural enterprise save in terms of energy costs, when it powers its production processes through solar energy? It is against this background that the Williamson Tea Estate in Kenya sealed this gap through its solar-powered farming technology which has seen it cut down its energy costs tremendously since 2014. 

Kerosene, diesel, and propane have traditionally been used, and continue to be used, in agricultural operations to power generators when grid connection was not available. However, use of these fuels is fraught with problems: cost of transporting fuel, volatility of fuel costs, fuel spillage, noisy generators, noxious fumes, and high maintenance needs. For many agricultural needs, solar energy provides a good alternative. Modern, well-designed, simple-to-maintain, and cost-effective solar systems can provide energy that is generated when and where it is needed. 

Farmers are traditionally stewards of the land, and by extension the environment, and their investment in renewable energy supports their role of protecting the land, air, and water. Solar energy, like other renewables, offers an opportunity to stabilize energy costs, decrease pollution and greenhouse gas-emissions and delay the need for electric grid infrastructural installations by the government. 

Solar energy systems have low maintenance costs, and the fuel is free once the higher initial cost of the system is recovered through subsidies and energy savings (from reduced or avoided energy costs) and have been the most prominent way to produce on-farm renewable energy. 

Williamson Tea Estate in Kenya has installed its Photovoltaic solar panels at its farm in Changoi, in the Rift Valley, and which are meant to operate in synergy with the national grid supply or the diesel generators. The solar system installed on the farm two years ago supplies up to 30% of the Williamson’s Tea factory’s electricity needs. This is about 1,600,000 kWh per annum. The system is a hybrid one which works synchronously with the mains electricity and thus reduces on-grid consumption. In the event that power in the main grid electricity is cut off, the solar system begins to operate in harmony with the backup diesel generators.
 

How does it work?

The solar PV system at Changoi is a hybrid technology that enables it to operate in tandem with a standby generator and creates a stable power supply. This makes solar an economically viable solution for many factories, farms and other businesses in emerging economies, where grid power is unstable and standby generators are solely relied on for power.

 

Diagram courtesy of Solarcentury

The Impact

The following is an outline of the milestones the installation of PV solar systems at the Williamsons Tea Estate in Changoi, Rift Valley, has made.

  • Reduced over-reliance on on-grid and diesel energy. This has subsidized energy costs tremendously.
  • Reduced carbonic footprint-about 1,200 tonnes CO2 saved from being released into the environment, per year.
  • Increased annual energy-generation: 1,600,000 kWh which supplements diesel and hydro-electric power.