Solar Energy for laptops in rural schools in Rwanda

Three hundred primary and secondary schools in Rwanda have been connected to electricity thanks to the IREA-RPPP-project and the support provided by the ACP-EU Energy Facility. Rwanda has set an ambitious target of one laptop pr. child in its educational system. For many rural schools this poses a challenge: How to power laptops, when your school is not connected to electricity? The solution offered by the project is solar energy and today more than two hundred thousand children go to schools that has electricity.

The project “Increased Renewable Energy Access in Rwanda through Public Private Partnerships” (IREA-RPPP) was initially designed to boost energy access through both solar- and hydropower. In the first year, the project components were split: the major hydropower projects became part of a Belgian supported hydropower-programme, and the purely EU-funded component focused mainly on off-grid solar energy. In this way, synergies were optimised between the development partners and the Rwandan government.

IREA-RPPP employed a very thorough selection process requiring that the schools targeted for support match several criteria: most importantly, they should be off-grid without the likelihood for grid connection for several years to come, so distance to the existing grid was important. Also, a certain number of students was required to maximise impact, and a necessary quality of buildings was needed to minimise theft of cables, outlets and lightbulbs. It was also important that school staff showed interest in and motivation to maintain the systems.

The technical design was adapted to the context: the condition of rural school buildings can be varied, they can be located at different orientations to the sun, and with a staff that has different levels of capacity and interest in technical maintenance. Systems were therefore placed within a fenced perimeter at the school premises with the panels mounted on a rack, inclined to their optimal position towards the sun, and with inverters, regulators and batteries placed in a small ventilated building below them.

This design resolves issues of finding suitable location for the panels and other equipment. The choice of lithium-ion batteries, the high energy capacity of the systems and the overall high quality of equipment and installations has meant that very few maintenance issues had risen even after several years of use. The large bulk of the systems will have a long lifetime before batteries or inverters needs to be replaced.

As a result of the project, the 300 schools use laptops in class and teachers have better work condition due to electricity access in the school. Some schools have even started to exploit systems in new ways using it to power computers and overhead projectors, loud speakers for communal singing, supply nearby buildings with electricity and offer services like hair cutting for children.