By Gitonga Njeru
NAIROBI (AlertNet) - Kenya is taking its climate change response to the streets. In a move aimed at boosting environmental sustainability while reducing costs and making residents safer, Nairobi city council has begun installing solar-powered street lighting.
The new project, which aims to increase the use of environmentally friendly technologies that can contribute to sustainable economic growth, is part of a climate-change response strategy launched by the Kenyan government in 2010.
The government has allocated one billion Kenyan shillings ($10 million) for the solar lighting project in the capital. A few solar street lamps have already replaced normal lights on a number of streets near the Kenyan parliament and other government buildings.
The initiative is expected to be completed by mid-2012, with the new lighting on at least 12 streets as well as a major highway connecting several towns outside Nairobi.
Nairobi’s town clerk, Phillip Kisia, believes the project will help the council depend less on hydroelectricity from nearby dams. “With climate change stalking us, water levels in hydroelectric dams have been on a decline as rains have been failing,” he said.
The unreliability of hydroelectric power in the face of climate shifts is causing power shortages and making electricity unaffordable for many, he added.
Solar street lights, on the other hand, “will save us many costs”, Kisia said.
“The lifespan of the solar-bulb street lamps (is) much longer than the conventional ones. This also saves on the costs of replacing (bulbs),” he explained. “The other important factor is we do not have to pay electricity bills as we rely on solar.”
Each solar-powered bulb requires only 80 percent of the energy a standard electric bulb needs in order to produce the same amount of light.
Kisia said the new lights should be easy to maintain, and are being installed on poles much taller than traditional street lamps to help protect them from vandalism.
The city council estimates it will save almost $2 million per month on electricity bills once the project is completed.
“(For) the few solar street lights already on some streets, we do not have to pay electricity bills,” said Wilfred Marube, a council public relations officer. “The money saved can be used for other purposes such as building new city council-run clinics.”
In the longer run, there are plans to invest tax revenues to extend solar street lighting beyond Nairobi.
Marube said other local authorities are considering adopting the technology. And the central government is funding solar lighting projects for highways to reduce the risk of road accidents at night.
Nairobi resident Jacline Mwenesi sees another practical advantage to the spread of sustainable street lighting in a city where crime is a growing problem and personal safety can be precarious.
“(Now) I can easily walk at night and see clearly when someone suspicious is stalking me. In 2001, you could not find a single street light in Nairobi. Muggings were quite high and I was once a victim. I lost money and a passport,” said Mwenesi.
“I am happy when I see solar lights. The conventional ones, once they are damaged, it takes time for the authorities to act. The solar ones stay on for very long,” Mwenesi added.
Kenya’s per capita consumption of solar energy technologies is one of the highest in the world. Many rural homes now boast solar panels and solar-powered appliances.
Gitonga Njeru is a science journalist based in Nairobi.