Ideas & Debate

New energy law calls for strategic national plan

wind farm
Geothermal, wind and solar are clearly the areas to be prioritised. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The Energy Act 2019 signed off by the President earlier this month calls for an integrated national energy plan every three years. A progressive energy plan that takes into account all viable energy supply options to ensure delivery of reliable energy services at least cost, and which is guided by appropriate technology. I emphasise progressive because of fast changing nature of energy technologies and investor options.

Although the law does not mention climate change directly, it is understood that Kenya shall play its roles according to global protocols and obligations which the country has signed.

In fact, the Act includes coal (a high carbon fuel) as one of the energy resources to be considered in energy planning. Therefore, the Kitui coal cannot be wished away.

Historically, energy generation planning in Kenya has not been sufficiently clear, often clouded by influence from investor lobby groups, and this has tended to make energy planning less objective.

The new law now requires inclusive consultation with the relevant stakeholders in developing and reviewing of energy plans. It also requires that inputs from county energy plans are taken into account.

Implementation of electricity generation projects is essentially a long lead time process which spans no less than five years from approval to commissioning. This makes it necessary to take longer term views during energy planning, while ensuring that we do not lag behind technological developments.

Electricity demands

The largest mistake that has been made in the past is over-estimation of national electricity demands, an expensive mistake which has resulted in surplus carried power production capacity which has to be paid for by consumers. Whereas electricity supply should always lead demands- so as to provide a secure supply buffer- this must not be excessive.

A clear correlation exists between GDP growth and electricity requirements. Any planning mismatch between the two invariably results in expensive consequences – either stunted economic growth due to absence of adequate electricity, or high costs of carried surplus capacity due to insufficient demand. Electricity generation planning should therefore not be done in isolation from national economic planning.

Specifically, in recent years, the economy has not succeeded in delivering on critical energy intensive development which includes manufacturing; electricity based rail transportation; and sufficient household incomes to boost per capita domestic electricity consumption.

Going forward any power generation that is based on “imported” resources (coal, fuel oil, and liquefied natural gas-LNG) should be de-emphasized in any future energy plans.

Imported energy upsets Kenya’s balance of trade and payments. There is however nothing benign about using locally produced fossil fuels (including coal) to generate our electricity, as long as the country has other projects and programs that compensate on carbon reduction.

It is also becoming more than mandatory for Kenya not to include more hydro generation (local or imported) in our future energy plans. Crossing River Tana last weekend revealed a river that is literally empty, meaning that soon we shall have to pay more for generation from imported oil. Hydrology is becoming unpredictable.

Nuclear energy

Geothermal, wind and solar are clearly the areas to be prioritised and which must be ring-fenced from competition from imported energy resources. Nuclear remains an energy source far ahead of our times, especially for an economy that is not growing fast enough.

The danger here is a rushed commitment of nuclear generation, potentially crowding out the more conventional renewable sources- geothermal, solar and wind

Turning to technology, it looks like in another five years time solar will have become an accepted “base-load” grid supplier. This will be made possible by the ongoing advances in battery storage technology which is currently heading for 100 megawatt capacities.

It will be possible and economical for daytime solar generation to be stored for grid injection during peak demands.

We should also not forget that in ten years time most of the passenger cars on our roads will be electrified thus creating huge new electricity demands.

Many possibilities and opportunities exist for consideration and inclusion in a new energy plan. Let us come up with the best power generation solutions that deliver least costs, quality, and security of power supply.