Kenyans losing billions to power cuts


Kenya Power workers during live-line maintenance. FILE PHOTO | NMG

One of the things Covid has done is make all the existing weaknesses in every structure, system and nation more damaging than it was before, with electricity being a prime example.

As it is, no-one knows or can explain, it seems, why Kenya Power cannot manage the awe-inspiring feat of supplying continuous electricity to people’s homes and businesses.

The power cuts only get worse and more frequent, and certainly not any better. Yet, why?

For sure, power cuts happen everywhere. But remedy is an imperative and the frequency is low, with power interruptions measured in minutes per year.

A year has just over half a million minutes. In the UK, the minutes of power interruption have varied by supplier in 2021 from an annual equivalent of half an hour to 51 minutes. That’s one minute of power interruption, on average, for every seven to 10 days.

Because even where power cuts happen, power comes back on swiftly. The power companies aren’t making any sales when the power is out.

Plus, if they don’t get the power restored at speed, they pay fines to the government, and the power users get compensation.

Indeed, the sums paid by the country’s power distributors in fines often reach several million pounds a year (typically half a billion shillings). So with every hour over repair time plundering a power company, many systems are in place, and urgency is extreme.

The sum is scattered and brief cuts. A brief but widespread power cut in the early evening of August 9, 2019 was the worst the country had seen since 2008.

It knocked out power for just under 45 minutes and led to a national enquiry. These are performance levels we cannot even imagine in Kenya.

Imagine losing one minute of electricity in every 7-10 days, or seven minutes once every two months: another planet, another century.

We are lucky to get through three days without losing seven minutes of power. And, actually, those cuts tend to be several hours each.

The average, say Kenya Power is now ‘just’ 100 minutes per month, so only 30 times more power cutting than UK companies manage. Yet, 30 times more matters.

For, working from home, people get stopped from earning with every cut, once their computer’s battery has gone, their phone battery, their Internet router: now they aren’t earning for themselves, for their families, or for Kenya.

And even the advised cuts make no sense in the forever conundrum of our abysmal electricity supply. Globally, Kenya touts the claim that nearly all its electricity is produced from renewable sources.

It’s supposed to be one of the leaders in the world in the proportion of national grid electricity from hydropower, wind, and geothermal, versus the non-renewable sources of oil-based power generation. So that’s wonderful. Yet every time the oil price surges we cop a massive fuel surcharge — on our renewable source electricity bills.

Apparently, that’s because we can’t regularise the flow of renewable so well, when the wind is low or the water levels down, so we use thermal energy — fuel-fired — to give us extra at peak times.

Only try to get your head around super-high fuel surcharges when water was so abundant that it swallowed whole villages around Lake Victoria. High water, for our main source hydropower, and extra oil back-up charges for our low water? That’s electricity Kenya-style.

Even successive rounds of adding more and more energy capacity at really a fairly rapid rate never seem to dent our power cuts, or shortages either. Of course demand rises, and so has rural electrification, but neither of those have gone so crazy that we couldn’t build enough capacity.

Yet people get solar kits on instalment plans now to charge their phones through it all. But how can we keep our professional staff online without spending Sh100,000+ per employee for generators or invertors? That multiplied, say, by half of some three million taxpaying employees, makes a new employment investment of Sh15 billion.

Or we just accept a day a week of work lost and maybe nearly two days, to power cuts. Part-time Kenya. Thanks to Kenya Power.