International Science Programme (ISP)

Solar Energy in Kenya

Jill Wellholm did her Minor Field Study in collaboration with the ISP supported solar cell research group at University of Nairobi, Kenya.  

Where did you go and what was your research subject?
I went with two of my friends, Moa Mackegård and Karin Rosén, to Nairobi the capital of Kenya. Through ISP we got in touch with two professors involved in solar energy research from the University of Nairobi. Kenya is a very interesting site for solar energy since the climate is favorable and a large part of the population, especially in the rural areas, lack electricity. Even those who are connected to the grid may be interested in solar energy because of the frequent blackouts. We decided to make an interdisciplinary study combining technical and social topics. We evaluated the technical performance of existing photovoltaic (PV) installations and looked at the social impact of a project where portable PV devices had been distributed to schools and families.  The standard device consists of a PV cell and a lamp, but the newer versions also have a connection for charging mobile phones and other electronic devices.

Did you reach any interesting results?
We have not yet published our results, but the technical evaluation of the PV systems showed losses due to a mismatch between the produced power and battery capacity at a few places. Some batteries had leaked as they did not meet the capacity needed to store the produced power. We found that the impact of different azimuth and inclination angles was not crucial for the production (partly expected since the sun’s path is almost straight at the equator). We also estimated losses due to shading.

The social study revealed that there are many benefits with the distribution of portable PV devices. The device works as a substitute for the kerosene lamp, which can cause fire and has a large negative economic impact for many Kenyan families. Furthermore the smoke of the kerosene lamp has negative health effects. The portable PV device enables children to study for more hours a day and the light is of better quality. Many people also appreciate the charging function. Now they don’t have to travel a far distance to town to charge their phones, which takes a lot of time and often includes extra costs.

What would you say are the most important experiences from your time in the field?
I think we could almost write a book about it. But to keep it short most valuable was to get to know the Kenyan culture and meeting its inspiring people. In Sweden people do not have to struggle as much to make a living. We saw the challenges that some of the Kenyan students encounter on a daily basis like not having enough light to study or money to pay for food. Many students seem very motivated and grateful for their chance to study and they strive for a better life. That is very humbling. There were so many impressions in general and we learned a lot about the Kenyan way of living. The politics, religion, infrastructure, personal safety, social customs and traditions, nature and food culture differ a lot from home. In terms of work the most useful experience was to set up our own project from the start and to define our limits (since it easily can get too big). That was good training for my master thesis.

Do you recommend others to apply for a MFS grant?
Definitely. It is a great experience and you gain a lot of insight to another culture. It certainly helps to collect information about the country you want to go to. People appreciate if you learn some phrases and show interest in their culture. You should of course enjoy the beauty, but also be aware of potential dangers and use your common sense.

More Information

Name: Jill Wellholm
University: Uppsala University
Program: Master Programme in Energy Systems Engineering
Level of thesis: Advanced level (15 credits)
Period of MFS: Spring 2014

Jill Wellholm did her Minor Field Study in collaboration with the ISP supported solar cell research group at University of Nairobi, Kenya.