Kenya Power in spotlight after nationwide blackout

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Kenya Power technicians move power lines

The #KPLC hashtag is trending on Twitter this week as TBEN share memes and gifs about the country’s worst national blackout in years.

While some tried to find light moments amid the darkness, others ranted about the inefficiency of the state-run Kenya Power Lighting Company.

It was the third national blackout in the past four years and raised questions about KPLC’s ability to provide a stable power supply.

In a statement, the company said four pylons supporting the power line, which connects the capital, Nairobi, to a hydroelectric dam in the central region, collapsed. He said the vandalism had weakened the structures.

Sabotage or pure failure?

Police are investigating the cause of the blackout, with the head of criminal investigations telling reporters they could not rule anything out, following fears of possible sabotage following reforms to the Energy Ministry that would have ruffled the feathers of bureaucrats.

A cabinet reshuffle in September 2021 saw President Uhuru Kenyatta appoint Monica Juma and her aide Gordon Kihalangwa to the ministry to push through reforms which, among other things, saw the cost of electricity drop by 15%.

Newton Njenga does his homework using a candle

With no electricity, many TBEN have had to resort to candles

Mr Kihalangwa then told lawmakers that heads would roll at Kenya Power for crimes allegedly committed while drafting power purchase agreement (PPA) contracts. Under a typical power purchase agreement, a producer is paid for any electricity produced, even if it is impossible for Kenya Power to sell it in the event of oversupply.

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The TBEN understands that the heads of various departments and companies within the ministry have been forced to resign, with others opting for early retirement. No one has been charged.

A presidential task force on power purchase agreements has recommended that independent power producers halve the tariffs paid by Kenya Power to match the prices of the power generation company, KenGen. He also advised that all power purchase agreements still under negotiation be suspended.

Lowering the cost of electricity and revising power purchase agreements would mean less revenue for Kenya Power, in which private investors hold a 49.9% stake.

A struggling monopoly

The list of frustrations with KPLC is long – including constant outages, slow power restoration, inflated electricity bills, and the time it takes to connect potential customers. Not surprisingly, it has attracted nicknames such as “Kenya Paraffin and Candles Limited”.

Kenya Power has also gone into debt, with its financial information indicating that a company depends on debt to run its operations. It borrowed from institutions such as the International Development Agency (IDA), China Exim Bank and Japan Development Bank. The loans are guaranteed by the state and are therefore the responsibility of the taxpayers in the event of default.

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Its sourcing procedures have also come under investigation, with a preliminary audit report showing it held around $85m (£63m) worth of dead animals – items such as electrical cables, meters and transformers that have been sitting in warehouses for more than five years without being used.

Critics have also accused the company of behaving like a monopoly – saying it is strangling other market players by limiting their ability to distribute to very small areas.

Count the losses

Tuesday’s blackout came at a time when the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (Epra) is seeking to force power companies to compensate consumers for financial loss, property damage, personal injury injuries and deaths due to power outages.

Currently, Kenya Power compensates for injuries and damaged equipment, but does not pay for financial losses caused by power failure.

Although the losses incurred during Tuesday’s outage have not yet been quantified, it is clear that many electricity-dependent businesses – including industries and small businesses such as welding shops and salons – suffered significant losses.

Sellah Anyango, who operates a salon in Nairobi, told the TBEN of his frustrations.

“I had customers coming and going because there was no electricity. The business has already suffered from the beatings it has taken due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now this? How are we going to pay rent and wages with such disruption? Totally unacceptable.”

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The evolution towards solar

A growing shift towards solar power systems by industries seeking reliable and cheaper supply has also shaken Kenya Power. The company has acknowledged that some of its industrial customers – which account for around 55% of its revenue – are switching to self-generated solar power.

A man adjusts a solar panel on his roof at dusk in Kwa-Mutisya village in Machakos county, about 100 kilometers southeast of Nairobi, November 16, 2016.

Many TBEN are switching to solar power

Major energy consumers such as Africa Logistics Properties (ALP), Mombasa International Airport, International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) have recently commissioned solar power units on their properties .

Several other companies, universities and factories have turned to grid-tied solar photovoltaic systems to provide energy for internal use.

Official data released last year showed there was an increase in adoption of solar power. Some 2.3 million households use solar energy for lighting, representing around 19% of the total number of households.

Kenya Power is eyeing a slice of that pie and has revealed it is set to join the solar power business. He said he would seek out customers wishing to install solar panels on their roofs and hire private companies to do the work under a design-build-finance-operate (DBFO) model.

Kenya Power would then sell the generated electricity at a reduced rate to owners of homes and office buildings hosting its solar power plants.

As the country shifts to solar power, Kenya Power will be forced to adapt or soon it could find itself irrelevant and cast into obscurity.

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