Kenya: Solar motorcycles take on Nairobi smog

Nairobi's reliance on motorcycles is hindering efforts to reduce carbon emissions, as manufacturers struggle to adapt to clean energy technology. But a new solar-powered three-wheeler could help clean up the city's act.

Kenya has a motorcycle problem.

Nature and Environment | 24.02.2017

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, more than 190,000 new motorcycles and three-wheeled vehicles were registered in 2017, compared to approximately 66,000 cars. This trend has continued into 2018, with 108,000 motorcycles and three-wheelers registered since January against just 38,000 cars. 

What's worrying is the fact that these motorcycles — which are increasing in demand thanks to a growing young population in search of employment — produce more carbon emissions than cars. 

A baseline survey on electric mobility in Kenya conducted by the University of Nairobi reveals a steep rise in cumulative emissions from two and three-wheeled vehicles between 2005 and 2017.

Clean energy technology for motorcycles is simply not developing at the same rate as cars.

"Cars are getting more efficient because of vehicle emission technologies, while motorcycles are not," David Rubia, an air quality and mobility program officer at the United Nations Environment Program (UN Environment), told DW. "One motorcycle can have up to 300 times more hydrocarbon emissions, and 10 to 50 times more for particulate matter [compared to] an average petrol car."

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Making the switch easy

Through the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — which formed a key component of the historic 2015 Paris climate agreement — Kenya has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030. In order to meet this commitment, Rubia said 20 percent of Kenya's motorcycles must be electric-powered by this deadline.

"This will ensure an economic win for the high number of unemployed youth and prepare Africa for a transition to an electric mobility transport system in general," Rubia said.

Rubia pointed out that, unlike electric cars, electric motorcycles do not require an investment in new transport infrastructure such as the installation of special charging stations.

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"A normal electric motorcycle battery can be charged at home using the normal electricity outlets," he said.

The government is actively working toward meeting its NDC commitment by focusing on developing cleaner motorcycles. Kenya, alongside Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda, is collaborating with the Nairobi-based UN Environment to collect baseline data and develop trials for electric motorcycles and three-wheelers. This will allow these countries to develop the right policy interventions and, it's hoped, introduce more electric motorcycles on the streets.

Developers of Kenya's solar-powered e-cycle hope to begin mass production by early 2019

Solar-powered three-wheeler

Nairobi is infamous for its terrible traffic jams, which only adds to the emissions problem. But a new solar-powered three-wheeler being developed by the Strathmore Energy Research Center hopes to solve these issues by giving back more control to the driver.

"The battery capacity when fully charged means that one can drive 50 kilometers [about 30 miles] — if the sun is low, one can peddle home," said Ignatius Maranga, a renewable energy engineer and researcher. "The [three-wheeler] allows one to conduct business during the day and then use the remaining energy to power the home."

The developers hope to begin mass production by early 2019, using their €100,000 ($114,000) prize from the 2018 Valeo Innovation Challenge in Paris in October. They estimate the solar-powered e-cycle will sell for approximately $1,000. Customers can also choose a pay-as-you-go scheme, contributing $2 a day for around three years.

Read more: Kenya needs to step up efforts to recycle e-waste

Prepping the e-waste industry

However, even low-emission solar-powered vehicles don't come without environmental risks. The batteries used to keep the three-wheelers running also contain lead, lithium and nickel, which are harmful to the environment when not disposed of properly.

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Anne Wacera, the quality manager at the Strathmore research center, is working on mapping Kenya's burgeoning hazardous electronic-waste industry and identifying companies that will help to safely dispose of the batteries and solar panels, keeping the new vehicles as eco-friendly as possible.

Although panels are expected to last for at least 25 years and the batteries up to nine years, Wacera said it's important to start thinking about long-term solutions to ensure Kenya will not become overwhelmed by an e-waste problem in the future. 

"We are considering buy-back solutions for the batteries, where the car owners will not fully own the batteries themselves, but will be able to return them and get a new one after its shelf life [is over]," she said.

For Rubia, the most important thing at this point is to raise awareness of this new electric transport technology so people will understand the benefits and integrate it into their daily lives.

"A lot of people do not know that this is something that exists today," he said. "We are concerned about making sure we pilot the right technology for the right purpose in each country."

Is Paris Europe's smog capital?

No clear view

Thick, polluted air clouds the picturesque of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. For several days in a row now, the air pollution has exceeded the maximum permitted levels for particulate matter.

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Open for pedestrian traffic only

On March 17, 2014, Paris officials introduced a driving ban in the city. Vehicles with an even number license plate are banned from entering the city on Monday; and on Tuesday cars with an odd number are banned. It is the first ban in over 15 years. Only electric and hybrid cars or those with more than three people are excluded from the ban.

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Cloudy view of Europe's capital

Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the seat of the EU and NATO headquarters, is smaller than Paris, but competes equally in terms of air pollution. On Friday, March 14, 2014, even the Eiffel Tower could have disappeared in Brussels' smog. To improve air quality, an overall driving speed limit of 50 km/h was introduced in the city.

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Sarajevo: Worst air in Europe

In Sarajevo, Bosnia, the concentration of particulate matter is the highest in Europe. The EU allows for an annual average of 40 micrograms per cubic meter. In Sarajevo it is 117 micrograms. The city's weather conditions are largely to blame. Without regular winds, smog and traffic exhaust accumulate over the city. High gas prices have also led residents to heat more with low-grade coal.

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Typical view of Beijing

In China, pollution levels have been record high for several days this year already. In Beijing, notorious for its thick air, a smog alarm has been established. The levels for the particularly dangerous fine dust particles are about 14 times the limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

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Top of the list: Ahwaz, Iran

The city of Ahwaz ranks worst on the WHO's list when it comes to smog, making it officially the city with the dirtiest air in the world. The reason is the amount of heavy industry in the city, which uses oil, metals and natural gas in its production processes.

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Ahead of the rest: Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Ulan Bator is not only one of the coldest capitals on earth, it's also the city with the second worst air pollution worldwide. During the winter months, domestic fireplaces with coal and wood contribute up to 70 percent of the smog in the city.

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Lahore: dust + traffic = smog

Air pollution is one of Pakistan's main environmental concerns at the moment. The situation is particularly dramatic in the country's second largest city, Lahore. The smog is caused primarily by the high volume of road traffic, rubbish incineration and dust from the surrounding deserts.

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Blame the coal in New Delhi

In the nearly 10 million-strong city of New Delhi, the number of cars has increased from 180,000 to 3.5 million in the last 30 years. Still, it's the city's coal powered plants that are causing the biggest problem. They contribute to around 80 percent of the total air pollution in the city.

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Sandstorms, like here in Riyadh, can contribute to smog forming because they increase the amount of particles in the air. In a place like Saudi Arabia, the intense ultra-violet rays also transform transport and industry emissions into ozone.

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Deadly air in Dhaka, Bangladesh

According to a study by the Max-Planck Institute in Mainz, some 15,000 people die every year in Dhaka due to air pollution. Researchers found the world's highest concentration of sulfur dioxide there.

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Thick air in Moscow, Russia

Even if it looks the same the world over, smog is different, depending on the city. Smog in Moscow, for instance, is characterized by high amounts of hydrocarbons. The westerly winds which regularly blow across Moscow mean that the western part of the city generally has better air quality.

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Bad location = bad air in Mexico City

The smog in Mexico City is made worse by the geographical location. The city is surrounded on three sides by mountains. Due to the high levels of sulfur dioxide and hydrocarbons in the air, Mexico City was long considered one of the most polluted cities in the world. The situation is now improving due to new transport policies and certain factories being shutdown.