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 November 19, 2014
Kenya moves to rein in solar cowboys

 When he retired from his publishing job in Nairobi six years ago, Joseph Ojuang moved to a house he had built in Siaya, western Kenya.

The home was more than 30 kilometres (18 miles) away from the nearest electrical grid, so Ojuang's only choice for power was to have a solar photovoltaic (PV) system installed.

But "the task was not easy," remembers the father of three. "The technicians my contacts referred me to displayed little knowledge of PV systems and were basically electricians keen to earn an extra shilling at the expense of quality work."

In a country where only 23 percent of homes are connected to the electricity grid, according to a 2010 World Bank report, solar energy is increasingly seen as an affordable and reliable source of power.

The government is so confident in the benefits of solar that it has introduced incentives to encourage uptake, including removing duty on solar panels.

LACK OF SKILLED TECHNICIANS

But the growth in solar power use in Kenya has been stunted by a lack of skilled labour. There are only 120 technicians in the country who are licensed to install solar electrical systems - not nearly enough to cope with the business available.

To help feed Kenya's need for qualified solar-energy technicians, the government has launched a training program that aims to create jobs and give clean energy a boost.

At the same time, it is working to weed out those who only want to make a quick buck out of the country's fledgling move to renewable, experts say.

Run in partnership with the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), the solar training programme will offer 100 trainees grants of up to $100 each to help cover the cost of a course at one of seven selected government-owned technical schools across the country.

Beneficiaries will have two weeks of intensive training, after which they will have to apply for licensing from the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC).

"Interest from potential candidates has been huge," said Cliff Owiti, head of the Kenya Renewable Association, an independent non-profit also partnering in the programme.

According to Pavel Oimeke, the ERC's director for renewable energy, by mid-2015 the country should have around 580 certified technicians, including those trained by the government and others who have gotten qualified on their own.

That number should grow to about 1,000 by 2016, he said.

HUGE SOLAR POTENTIAL

According to Oimeke, the potential for solar energy in Kenya remains relatively untapped, with the current installed capacity exploiting only 1 percent of the power that the country could generate.

But the government knows that if it is going to motivate more Kenyans to install solar-energy systems in their homes and businesses, it not only needs to increase the number of trained technicians but also make it harder for untrained installers to undercut them.

"We had a big problem with untrained people undertaking works for clients. But over the past two years we have moved in strongly to regulate this growing field of renewable energy," Oimeke said.

According to the ERC director, regulations introduced by the body in 2012 state that anyone installing, manufacturing, importing, designing or distributing solar PV systems must be licensed by the commission.

And in what Oimeke calls a milestone in regulating the sector, the commission has been working with the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA) to develop the first-ever national curriculum for student solar-energy technicians.

New regulations have also been put in place to tackle the sale and use of poor quality materials and equipment, whether made locally or imported, he said.

CONVINCING LOCAL AUTHORITIES

One of the biggest remaining challenges, says Oimeke, is convincing local authorities to follow the ERC's lead. Too many are turning a blind eye to licensing when it comes to hiring people to install solar-street lighting projects being implemented around the country, he said.

"This goes against the law," Oimeke said. "You simply cannot award any contracts involving solar PV systems to persons or companies not licensed by the ERC. We need county governments to stop this."