A rising number of flower companies are now embracing use of solar energy in their daily operations as they move to insulate themselves from erratic electricity supply.
The move has been hailed as a step in the right direction especially in taming the rising cost of producing flowers for exports with the cost of fertilisers, labour and air freight going up, necessitating cost reduction measures. The solar power projects are also meant to enable the farms reduce their use of diesel power generators, the main option for many flower farms in Kenya when there is power blackout.
According to Kenya Flower Council there is an opportunity of making Kenya flowers competitive in the world market when more farms invest in solar power projects. It will mean Kenya flowers can be less priced because of less production costs, and therefore maintain a competitive in pricing.
Nanyuki’s 64-hectare Tambuzi flower farm in Laikipia County is among the latest entrants in the growing list of large farms that have tapped into the cheaper and green solar energy. The farm installed a 60-kilowatt solar power system in a bid to trim operation cost and reduce carbon emission whenever power supply is interfered with and have to turn to standby diesel-run generators.
In a statement, the managing director Tim Hobbs said that the solar kit would save the farm up to 10,000 kilowatts per month in energy bills.
“Our processes involve a lot of water pumping for irrigation and refrigeration of ready products awaiting shipping. These operations require 24-hour supply of power from the national grid,” he said.
Mr Hobbs added: “This is a direct solar feed and there are no batteries involved and this reduced our installation costs.”
Demand for solar kits has in recent days grown with business establishments and large households rushing to comply with Energy (Solar Water Heating) Regulations 2012.
The regulations demand that units whose hot water needs exceed 100 litres per day be retrofitted with solar heaters by 2017 to cut electricity costs. Another flower farm, Uhuru Flowers, has launched a 72 kilowatt solar power plant in a bid to cut its spending on electricity by about 50 percent, from $6,000 per month six months ago. “The unreliable, low quality electricity created a need for an alternative source of energy,” said flower farm owner Invan Freeman.
The farm, which exports exclusively to the Russian market, is located in Nanyuki, 230 km from Nairobi. The solar power project at Uhuru Flowers is now being used by the Kenya Flower Council as a case study of how other flower farms can use solar technology to cut the cost of production.
Kenya is the leading exporter of rose cut flowers to the European Union, according to the Kenya Flower Council. It has a market share of about 38 percent but it is facing competition from Ethiopia and Latin American countries.
The growing interest in investing in solar power projects by flower farms has also brought in new vendors of medium to large scale solar power project developers keen to tap into the emerging market. Among them is the East African Solar, the company that jointly with partners developed the 72 kilowatts Uhuru Flowers project.
East Africa Solar Managing Director Guy Lawrence said the projects are able to give in return on investment in about five years. He said the perception in East Africa that solar power plants can only work in areas with longer sunshine periods like northern Kenya is holding back investments. "Solar power plants are working in Scotland with limited sunshine, therefore there is no problem having solar in Nairobi, Kampala or Arusha with our occasional grey skies," said Lawrence.
East African Solar is focusing on developing large scale commercial solar parks in area's of the region that require extra power for businesses or the grid, both of which help grid stabilization. Another solar technology vendor is a French company AVENTUS which seeks to facilitate flower farms reduce their electricity costs through use of a mix of solar, wind and diesel generators.
The technologies the company currently offers include wind turbines with output of 275 kilowatts and one megawatt.
"The turbines are specifically designed to be the most easy to install in any ground and tough terrains without requiring heavy equipment. They have worked in areas with even harsh conditions around the world," said the managing director of AVENTUS Philippe Figuiere.
AVENTUS has also introduced a concept of intelligent hybrid solutions combining solar-diesel or wind-diesel managed by high- tech software allowing the best use of renewable energy.