Solar roof tiles power Kenya’s rural classrooms

With nearly half its population not connected to the grid, Kenya is experimenting with a local and sustainable approach to powering schools with the sun.

Gaitheri Secondary School in central Kenya’s Murang’a County has had one of its iron-sheet roofs covered in solar generating tiles known as building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV).

Designed to be laid on roofs during construction, the tiles offer an alternative to adding solar panels on top to produce power.

They were made by Kenyan firm Strauss Energy and paid for with a grant from the United States African Development Foundation.

"They wanted an institution that is away from urban centres and where grid power connectivity is poor," Jackson Kamau Kiragu, a teacher at the 275-pupil school, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The project started in 2016, and has enabled students to improve their performance thanks to more reliable power, which means they can study even after dark.

The solar power is stored in batteries, ensuring a continuous supply at night and on cloudy days.

Kiragu said the BIPV technology has also allowed the school to offer computer lessons. "We’ve got 18 computers, but power was a challenge before Strauss Energy came on board," he told Reuters.

The school is connected to the national grid but the power is costly and unreliable.

Reuters said the BIPV tiles have reduced the school’s spending on electricity to about $14.50 a month.

"Irrespective of the weather, we rely on solar power," said Kiragu.

Reuters reports that a survey commissioned by Christian Aid and the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance early this year showed that only about 57% of Kenyans are connected to the grid.

Strauss Energy believes it can meet the need for electricity, and plans to build a plant to make 10,000 units daily.

But its chief operations officer, Charity Wanjiku, told Reuters that the Kenyan construction industry is reluctant to incorporate new technologies. Market penetration is slow and the technology will require time to be accepted.

Authorities are pushing solar, however. In April, Kenya’s Energy Regulatory Commission directed property owners whose buildings use more than 100 litres of hot water a day to install solar water-heating systems, according to Reuters.

The tiles cost between $20 and $250 each, depending on their size.

Research and development is underway to improve the product and bring down costs while enhancing efficiency, Wanjiku said.

Image: The solar power at Gaitheri Secondary School is stored in batteries, ensuring a continuous supply at night and on cloudy days (Straus Energy via Facebook)

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