By Karuma Njoroge and Gitonga Njeru
KIGALI, June 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rwanda has begun turning to solar power in a big way thanks to economic and political reforms, including laws passed late last year allowing foreign investment in renewable energy.
The east-central African economy is growing at around 7 percent a year, according to the World Bank, just 22 years after genocide killed an estimated 800,000 people, leaving deep psychological scars.
Despite its economic success, Rwanda still has one of the world's lowest rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita, according to the climate action plan it submitted in November for the Paris agreement to curb global warming.
But Claver Gatete, Rwanda's minister of finance and economic planning, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation high economic growth means the country must keep up momentum on its efforts to use more renewable energy.
"(With) the rate of industrialisation the country is experiencing, the good returns may be reversed if new (energy) alternatives are not realised," he said, noting Rwanda’s reliance on fossil fuels for transport and other commercial activities.
The climate action plan says fossil fuels could account for 46 percent of electricity generation by 2020, up from a third now, on its current path. But to avoid that, the plan commits to building more renewables capacity, including hydro and solar power.
So far, the signs are encouraging. Gatete said the amount of solar power generated in Rwanda has increased by nearly 90 percent since mid-2014, when a major new solar plant came online.
The government-run power station now produces around 100 megawatts (MW), representing 10 percent of the country's electricity production.
The $22.6 million plant took just a year to complete, and consists of some 28,360 solar panels sitting in neat rows on the green hills overlooking Lake Mugesera, 60 km east of the capital, Kigali.
The computer-controlled photovoltaic panels, each 1.9 square metres, tilt to track the sun, improving efficiency by 20 percent compared to stationary panels.
The power station’s panels were manufactured in China, while its inverters and transformers were made in Germany. Its construction created 350 local jobs, and the plant has boosted Rwanda’s electricity generation capacity by 6 percent, powering more than 15,000 homes.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, Rwanda has the potential to generate over 2 million MW of solar power, but U.N. figures show the country is still only producing around 134 MW.
ACCESS TO ENERGY
Minister Gatete said the recent rise in solar energy was partly influenced by the National Strategy for Climate Change and Low Carbon Development, which was launched in 2011 and runs until 2020.
"Use of renewable (energy)… for important uses such as electricity, cooking, and irrigation has increased countrywide," he said. Ten thousand families are now harnessing solar power, he added.
Ignite Power Ltd is one Rwandan solar company that has been working with the government to achieve a goal of giving 70 percent of the population access to electricity by 2018, up from just 12 percent now.
The business aims to invest $50 million in off-grid systems to reach 250,000 households that lack access to power, around a tenth of those without.
"They can afford to pay for power but cannot access it," said company director Angela Homisi.
Rwanda's action plan submitted for the U.N. climate deal includes a pledge to establish up to 100 solar mini-grids in rural communities with the aim of helping meet daily power needs and stimulating local business activities.
POO POWER TO IRRIGATION
Another factor behind rising renewable energy use is government grants for farmers and other business people, Gatete said.
Eight grants have been handed out in the past two years, with farmers receiving support ranging from 2,000 euros ($2,263) to 10,000 euros ($11,317) for renewable energy projects.
In February 2015, Kazengwa Mikiira, 45, built a facility on his 12-acre farm in Huye in southern Rwanda that uses cow dung and human waste to produce electric power, which he supplies to his neighbours.
Another farmer, Franco Mulanda, from Musanze in the north, uses solar energy to power irrigation pumps, as well as for electricity, and finds it much cheaper, saving as much as 40 percent on related costs.
"I can use the money I save for school tuition for my two children," the 34-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Solar is affordable."
In February, the government received funding of 460 million euros ($520.6 million) from the European Union to bolster its national climate change strategy and to back innovative business ideas that reduce the negative impacts of global warming.
The money is also intended to pay for efforts to prevent and manage weather-linked disasters, such as floods, and will be renewed after 2020 if all goes well, Gatete said.
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(Reporting by Karuma Njoroge and Gitonga Njeru; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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