Sondu Miriu power project to ease energy crisis in western Kenya

Work in progress at the Sang’oro power plant project, a subsidiary of Sondu Miriu hydro-electricity station. The plant is expected to generate 20.1 megawatts of power once it is completed in March next year. Tom Otieno
Work in progress at the Sang’oro power plant project, a subsidiary of Sondu Miriu hydro-electricity station. The plant is expected to generate 20.1 megawatts of power once it is completed in March next year. Tom Otieno 

Western Kenya’s electricity supply is set to be stabilised if the ongoing Sang’oro power plant project at the Sondu Miriu River is completed as scheduled.

The Sang’oro hydro-electric power plant would be a subsidiary of Sondu Miriu station and is expected to use the flow of the river to generate 20.1 megawatts. The Sh6 billion project, which is to be completed by March 2012, would increase Sondu Miriu’s power production to 80.1 megawatts.

According KenGen chief engineer in charge of western Kenya HEP projects, Mr Alfred Abiero, completion of the plant would stem power outages experienced by the region.

“Western Kenya is currently adversely hit by the ongoing rationing because of scheduled maintenance works at Turkwell hydro-electric power station and Mumias Sugar Company, which are two of the largest producers of power to the grid,” he said. “The completion of Sang’oro will boost the region and the national power grid.”

Power rationing

The electricity rationing programme by Kenya Power in parts of the country have negatively affected operations of industries and homes in the region.

The country’s installed capacity stands at 1,200MW while the demand is at 1,100MW. This demand rises at an average of seven per cent annually.

However, changes in weather influences power production since the bulk of the supply relies on hydro-electric generation, which depends on the amount of rainfall experienced.

Western Kenya’s power generation stations contribute about 16.1 per cent of electricity to the national grid. The power stations are Turkwell (106MW), Sondu Miriu (60MW), Mumias (25MW) Gogo (2MW) and Sosian (0.6MW). These are, however, not enough to meet the region’s demand for energy.

“The region has one of the highest population densities in the country and the greatest demand is from homesteads”, said Mr Abiero. “In addition to the overall demand from industries, there is an increase in connections to homesteads through rural electrification and CDF initiatives which puts a strain on the existing grid infrastructure.”

Last week, major industries in western Kenya raised concern that the ongoing power rationing was crippling the region’s economic outlook and reversing the gains made so far.

Companies like Agro Chemical and Food Company Limited and Spectre International that spoke to Business Daily said that power rationing was eating into their profit margins and had resulted in losses running into the millions of shillings.

Electricity distributor Kenya Power faces a shortage of 90MW in the national grid, which has led to the power rationing programme. KenGen is, however, upbeat that completion of Sang’oro and other power stations in western would boost supply.

“The most immediate measure to deal with the deficit, which occasioned the rationing in the first place, is an emergency sub-station being set up at Muhoroni,” said KenGen’s business development and strategy director Albert Mugo. “This will be a diesel driven thermal plant that will bring in about 60MW of electricity.”

Aggreko, a power generating company, is facilitating the project expected to be installed by September 15. KenGen, however, acknowledges that production of this type of thermal electricity is expensive and cannot be sustained for long.

“This is a temporary solution and in the long run we plan to substitute the diesel powered generators with permanent ones that run on heavy fuel oil similar to the Kipevu thermal generation plant”, said Mr Mugo. KenGen has set a tentative two-year period to complete a permanent thermal station at Muhoroni, which will generate 80MW to the national grid.

If the two projects are implemented as scheduled, they would boost western Kenya’s capacity by more than 100MW thus ending erratic power supply and prolonged outages. Additional power stations would make maintenance of the existing ones easier.

“Most of western Kenya relies on Turkwell and Sondu Miriu and this puts the region at risk should either station experience technical problems,” said Mr Abiero. “Right now part of the equipment at Turkwell is under maintenance and this means Sondu Miriu is the only plant running at full capacity.”

In addition to this, Mumias Sugar Company, which supplies 25MW to the national grid has been fighting a tough battle to meet its quota owing to shortage of bagasse. This means that Sondu Miriu cannot be stopped for maintenance putting the new multi-billion shilling investment at risk of accelerated depreciation from wear and tear. In the past month, Sondu Miriu has been operating at above 90 per cent capacity despite the drought that has affected the other hydro-electric power plants.

“When we talk about rainfall patterns one thing that we need to understand is that we have the western and eastern regimes,” explained Mr Stephen Ochieng, the chief engineer in charge of technical operations at Sondu Miriu.

“The current drought has affected most the eastern regime where the major plants sit. Western Kenya HEP plants lie on the western regime, which has somewhat been spared of the heavy impact of the drought”.

He adds: “The rainfall pattern in western Kenya can be described as steady but erratic and this unpredictable nature has made it difficult to plan operations at the power plants.”

The destruction of the Mau Forest has been blamed for the shift in rainfall distribution patterns which greatly affects Sondu Miriu power station.

This is because the plant does not have a dam to store the river water and cushion it during the dry periods, thus relying on the natural flow of the river.

“In May and June, for example, we expected peak flows but we recorded the lowest. July and August are normally characterised by lower water flows, but the opposite is happening and we are recording above average flows,” he said.

The forest is the source of several rivers in western Kenya including Sondu Miriu. Increased encroachment of the catchment area disrupts the flow of the river, which in turn affects generation of power.

As the demand for power grows, there is need to re-evaluate energy generation and supply systems, especially dependence on hydro-electric power.

More than 50 per cent of the power generated is hydro-electricity. This exposes the country to a vicious cycle of energy crisis every time drought is experienced.