Citizens Adopt Renewable Energy Sources to Meet Energy Needs

Ange Asanzi
Traffic light in Kinshasa
Traffic light in Kinshasa
By Ange Asanzi

Recently, I returned to my beautiful home country of Congo during an International Rivers field visit. About an hour after we landed in Kinshasa as we were driving from the airport on our way to Gombe, I was surprised to see a traffic light powered by a small solar panel. Solar panels powering municipal works are surprisingly rare in this sunny country in Central Africa. I was even more surprised and impressed when I learned that this traffic robot was developed by a local citizen from one of Kinshasa’s technical universities. This small step toward sustainable energy seemed to represent the positive spirit of the Congolese people, and their ability to rise above the country’s many difficulties.

As we travelled within the city, I noticed charcoal and firewood being sold and traded everywhere. The city of Kinshasa still relies very heavily on wood biomass for energy. I shudder to imagine how much of the forest is being harvested to meet the energy needs of millions of people in one of Africa’s most populated capital cities. Yet there seemed to be no immediate remedy in sight.

As part of our field visit, we organized a seminar to share information about the renewable energy situation and discuss options for various energy solution projects. As part of this effort, we learned that the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme and Netherlands Development Organization (SNV) – has launched an atlas on renewable energy in the DRC. This is reported to be the first such atlas in the region, and hopefully indicates an important step by the government to increase energy access. The atlas has yet to be released; according to government officials, there are still unresolved technical issues and a need to improve the atlas’ interactivity before it is released. 

The biggest impediment to the development of renewable energy resources in DRC is lack of funds designated for these kinds of initiatives and lack of political will from the government. Therefore, it is necessary to look into alternative sources for energy development in an environment where state intervention is inefficient. Perhaps DRC can adopt some of the successful models used in other developing countries. First and foremost, these models must ensure that the local people are the main drivers. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that there are too few projects of this type and very little expertise in country for the scale of the problem. 

The DRC has many energy options, which can be developed both for urban and rural areas. Solar is the most obvious, but DRC has other options as well – for example, biogas. Currently, Kinshasa’s population produces more than 6,000 cubic meters of solid waste daily, which contains at least 60% organic material. If converted using biogas digesters, this waste could produce over 1 million cubic meters of biogas per year. It is possible that biogas development could close a large portion of the energy gap.

Small hydro plants is another huge untapped resource. Pico hydropower (plants under 5kW) and mini hydro are key potential energy sources for DRC, which has many small perennial rivers. Yet only a few have been developed, and management of small hydro projects by the state power authority, Societe Nationale d’Electricite (SNEL), has been haphazard and their usefulness has been compromised. 

Hydraulienne in Kikimi
Hydraulienne in Kikimi
By Ange Asanzi

I visited a small village on the outskirts of Kinshasa with nearly 10,000 habitants. In 2001, the “Walloon Region (the predominantly French-speaking southern region of Belgium) installed a “hydraulienne” on the Ndjili River in Kikimi. Initially this pico-hydro supplied electricity to the village’s school, administration building and hospital. Later, a few houses were connected on a trial basis with payment deferred. The hydraulienne was well managed and maintained for eight years, but broke down one year after it was handed off to the Ministry of Energy. To this day no repairs have been carried out and all those who were connected have been plunged back into darkness. This story is true for many small hydro plants that were once scattered throughout the country. The nation’s big dams, Inga 1 and 2have also not escaped this curse. Under SNEL’s management, the dams struggle to remain operational.  Yet SNEL would be involved in running one of Africa’s biggest dam projects, the Inga 3 – a priority project of the World Bank and US government. 

In response to the unreliability of state-run energy projects, the hospital and convent in Kikimi have installed solar panels to meet their energy needs and become independent from SNEL’s services. Some of the inhabitants of Kikimi mentioned that they were also considering solar as a source of energy for lighting their homes. Another person told me about their experience using a diesel generator, explaining that because it requires constant petrol, it is expensive to run. “It is simply unaffordable,” he lamented.

Clean renewable energy that is affordable and accessible to the majority of Congolese is perhaps the best answer to bridging DRC’s huge energy-access gap. Now the questions remain – what is the best way to provide renewable energy to people in the Congo who are currently in the dark? And what can be done to encourage communities, investors and local governments to tap into renewable resources to meet local needs? We will continue to seek answers to these questions.  

Monday, August 18, 2014