solar-panelRooftop solar panels will soon be keeping the lights on in 117 schools and health clinics in rural Kenya. Photovoltaic equipment maker Go-solar Systems has teamed with renewable energy builder Power Options to wean municipal buildings off of environmentally-damaging and inconsistent hydropower, and lower the costs of electricity in impoverished regions.

The schools and health centers receiving the panels are largely off the grid and have never had electricity before. This solar pilot project, costing an estimated $3.63 million, will fundamentally change how they operate, and the services they can offer to surrounding communities. If the photovoltaics installed on top of these buildings successfully deliver affordable power and positively impact people, the project could be expanded across Kenya, including in urban centers. The country has set a goal to make renewable energy nationally available by 2012.

The country’s government has already earmarked about $6.6 million to bring solar power in far-flung areas of the country where electrical infrastructure remains underdeveloped. Similar rooftop solar projects elsewhere in Africa have demonstrated enormously positive results. With electricity, schoolchildren can be exposed to new things and study longer during the day, and health clinics can acquire badly-needed equipment to improve quality of care.

Solar seems to be the best choice for Kenya, well-suited to its year-round arid and sunny climate. If the country’s wind and solar sources were fully tapped, analysts believe the country could produce more than 3,000 megawatts of energy — enough to power 3 million American homes, and many more Kenyan homes. On top of that, another 3,000 megawatts could be derived from geothermal sources.

Go-solar Systems has been very active in East Africa, installing both solar and wind systems used to provide backup generation, and hot water heaters. It is very experimental in its technology and interested in extensive testing before widespread delivery. In addition to offering solar panels, Power Options sells a range of energy efficient appliances and consumer goods, including solar lanterns, flashlights and battery chargers. Both companies fit into a larger movement of renewable energy providers looking to grow while improving lives in the developing world.

Some independent design firms are also jumping into the mix with innovative ideas. For example, D.light’s Kiran lamps can fully charge during a sunny day to provide four the eight hours of light at night. They are actively replacing kerosene lanterns which have led to devastating fires and health problems due to fume inhalation. These are the ideas that will revolutionize how energy works off the grid, as well as people’s quality of life.