I began my visit to the school by conducting an audit of all the electrical fixtures and fittings and anything that might be plugged into them, in all ten classrooms and the 26 other rooms that comprise the ALC. Ably assisted by deputy head teacher Gideon, I also noticed a few broken sockets and switches which had live wires exposed, so I replaced these to make them safe to inquisitive little fingers.
Next came the power analysis. Using a watt-hours meter I had brought with me from London, I was able to measure how much energy the computers and other electrical hardware were consuming. I totalled up the lightbulbs also and cross-referenced all this against Kenya Power electricity bills held in a file by Rachael – the same bills which had been ‘choking’ the school financially, in the words of Joshpat. To my surprise, I estimated that the nine outside security lights alone were using around 80% of all power drawn down from the grid by the school.
An obvious step then was to replace each of the old incandescent bulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). But for Africa these do not come cheap – around two pounds each – and there were 27 other incandescent bulbs inside the school buildings to be switched. Now that they have been bought, however, they should soon start to pay for themselves.
After replacing the bulbs I installed a self-contained solar unit in the school library, to provide an artificial lighting source to help improve the reading conditions for the children. This consisted of a small 5-watt solar panel raised to a flat position on the sloping corrugated iron roof of the library, connected to two down lights and a mobile phone charger via a wall-mounted control panel.
Manufactured by the Dutch electronics giant Philips under the slogan ‘For a brighter Africa’, I bought the whole set from a local supermarket for around £60. Again, this is not cheap for Africa but it is a brilliantly simple solution for those who can afford the initial outlay. Indeed, many stallholders across Africa (and Asia) are finding such solar units to be a cleaner, more economical and brighter alternative to traditional kerosene lamps. For if being so close to the equator guarantees you six hours of direct sunlight a day on average, then it also means you are plunged into darkness at around 6pm each evening. And market traders, of course, need their goods to be seen to be sold.
My final side project was to install three fire extinguishers where previously the school had none: one each in the girls’ and boys’ dormitories and one in Rachael’s office, which housed her computer, printer and photocopier. I conducted a training session with the school staff to make sure they were comfortable with using one in the unlikely event of a fire.
Such small fixes were all beneficial in their own way, but the bigger picture for my visit was of a solar power installation to meet the school’s future energy demands in their entirety, or as close to this as possible. The power analysis determined that the old bulbs had to go, and the new ones are already reducing the amount of energy that an array of solar panels will need to produce, according to an email from Josphat last week:
“I have the December electricity bill and am amazed the bill has dropped from kshs 6,000 to kshs 2,000,” he wrote. “The energy saving bulbs seem to be performing miracles on saving.”
If this trend continues, then the ALC could have an affordable solar system to meet 100% of its energy needs. And in case the school expands yet further and sees this need rise, or in the event of several cloudy days in a row, the system can be configured to switch back to grid power. This, I learned, is called a ‘grid fallback’ system of solar.
But where to put it? Even the slightest shadow can knock the whole performance of a solar array, so it was important to find a mounting site free from obstructions such as trees and other buildings. It will be important, also, to position the panels near to vertical, as the sun passes almost directly overhead due to Kitale’s position just one degree north of the equator.
Unfortunately, I found that most of the school’s buildings have sloping roofs. Only the thin piece of tin covering the boys’ toilets is close to being flat, but this small construction is at the opposite end of the school site to the consumer unit, where the grid power will be taken from as necessary. It would also be too dangerous to house the inverter, controller and batteries here, and the longer the cable between them and the panels, the less efficient the system.
The baby class roof appeared best located for the job, but it will need to be strengthened before it can take the weight of the panels, and the frame needed to raise them into a flat position. That should be the first task for Josphat and the school, and when completed we can look to reassess the school’s actual energy consumption since my visit and install a solar array commensurate with that.
And then we should be able to sit back, relax, and let the sun do the rest.
For more photos from Phil’s trip, click here