Costly power generators make big comeback on long drought


Energy Cabinet Secretary Davies Chirchir tours Masinga dam in Embu County to assess the situation following prolonged dry weather. FILE PHOTO | GEORGE MUNENE | NMG

Expensive thermal power generators have made a major comeback on the national grid after they overtook wind and hydro to become the second biggest sources of electricity, reversing a five-year trend of cutting off diesel plants blamed for high power bills.

A Business Daily analysis of official data shows that Kenya tapped 166.86 gigawatt hours (Gwh) of power from the diesel-run generators in March, contributing the second largest share of the power mix in nearly five years after geothermal sources at 509.36 Gwh.

The data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) indicate that the uptake of costly thermal energy was the highest in a year as the country sought to fill the void left by wind and hydro dams whose supply has been hurt by adverse weather conditions.

A biting drought said to be the worst in 40 years, lowered the water levels in the country’s hydroelectric plants such as the Seven Forks Dams on Tana River and Sondu-Miriu in western Kenya in the first quarter of the year.

That pushed up the hydroelectric power supply to the grid to the lowest levels of output in nearly one and a half decades.

The KNBS data put the share of hydropower just before the onset of the long rainfall season at 125.98 Gwh in March and 112.91 Gwh in February, the lowest share since the latter months of 2009 when the country endured another ravaging drought.

A Gwh is equivalent to a million units of electricity.

The increased tapping of thermal electricity was not unexpected as the Energy Cabinet Secretary Davies Chirchir had warned government’s options had narrowed.

“We have water level problems and we may be forced to push other forms of power generation to meet the country’s power demand but the only challenge we might get is that the power will be slightly expensive,” Mr Chirchir warned following his visit to Masinga Dam, the country’s largest hydropower generation reservoir.

The situation was worsened by the reduced supply of wind power, partly because of unresolved interruption on the Loiyangalani-Suswa transmission power line which has occasionally been cut off from the Lake Turkana Wind Power plant in Marsabit County.

The share of wind power dropped to 152.35 Gwh in March from a recent monthly high of 237.49Gwh last October.

Increased supply from thermal plants translates to high bills because the power plants must be compensated for the electricity supplied to the grid even if it is not used.

Thermal power plants use diesel generators, making them more expensive than other power sources.

Conservative estimates showed the thermal plants charge Kenya Power, the near-monopoly State-run distributor, as much as $0.20 (Sh27.87 under the prevailing average dollar exchange rate of Sh139.35) per unit compared with the wind power rate of $0.08 (Sh11.48) per unit.

Electricity is sold in US dollars, meaning Kenyan households and businesses spend more whenever the shilling depreciates.

Fuel cost charge – the levy that Kenya Power uses to pay the thermal plants – and compensation for forex fluctuations hit Sh8.30 per unit from Sh6.59 a month earlier, according to data from Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority.

“Our power costs are more expensive on average than other countries that we are competing with. One of the major reasons is the arrangements that the government got into a long time ago in terms of thermal or emergency power,” Antony Mwangi, the chief executive of Kenya Association of Manufacturers, told the Business Daily in an interview.

“With those contracts, it is either you use or you pay. So even though our grid is leading in the green generation of power, which is one of the highest in the world, we are still stuck with all contracts.”

Kenya Power turns to thermal plants to meet demand and ensure stable supply at peak times but low rains that hurt hydro levels further led to increased reliance on dispatch from the thermal plants.

Hydro was for years the single biggest source of electricity in the national power mix until 2015 when it lost out the slot to geothermal due to a combination of poor rains and increased investments in clean energy.

The increased tapping of dirty thermal power hurts Kenya’s plan to transition to 100 percent clean and affordable sources by 2030.

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