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Power generation alone not enough in Kenya

14 Feb 2017 - 11:43

On June 7, 2016, the entire country experienced a power blackout, leaving some 4.7 million households and businesses without electricity. It took more than four hours before the power was restored.

The country was amused to learn later from the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen), the country’s largest generator of electricity, that the blackout was caused by a rogue vervet monkey that had trespassed into the Gitaru power plant.

The trespassing primate fell onto a transformer, triggering a chain of cascading actions that led to a loss of 180 megawatts, hence the blackout. The vervet, which was lucky enough to survive and was taken away by wildlife authorities, reportedly made history as the first monkey to achieve this feat in Kenya’s history.

This monkey story has both energy security and poverty overtones, which are closely interlinked and dependent on the greenhouse gas emissions development pathway chosen by the country.

First one, despite huge plans and programmes for energy security, Kenya’s power supply infrastructure is fragile and vulnerable due to a number of basic factors. This message is better brought home by the fact that the blackout occurred at a time when Kenya was in the enviable position of having significantly more installed capacity, mostly through addition of geothermal plants, than the grid connected peak demand.

So, the first lesson learnt from this incident is that energy security will not be achieved through addition of generation capacity alone but must be supported by the development of a robust and resilient distribution infrastructure.

The second side of the story is that despite the nationwide blackout, the power outage didn’t directly affect nearly a half of the country’s citizens. According to Kenya Power, only 55 per cent of Kenya’s 45 million people presently have access to grid power, with even fewer actually connected.

Most of those not affected by the blackout directly happened to be the more than 43 per cent of the population still living below the poverty line in the country. These people either lack connectivity to the system or cannot afford grid electricity, with Kenya still having one of the highest electricity tariffs in the region.

The second lesson is that it will be extremely challenging to achieve the target of universal energy security without addressing poverty with the same vigour.

Government on the move?

Meanwhile, the government of Kenya has been, and is still, on the move. Along with private-sector investors, the government has been developing and implementing some of the world’s most spectacular transport, energy and technology projects.

So far, the projects under implementation do not seem to have made a significant dent on Kenya’s poverty, with the country emerging as one of the most unequal societies in the world.

Through Vision 2030, the government hopes to deliver a “newly industrialised, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030.”

Energy security is a critical pillar for the development that the country requires in order to realise the Vision. Another important consideration in charting out the development path to the Vision climate change, and its impacts on the vulnerable, who are mostly the poor members of the society.

Kenya’s development and economic growth path must therefore address energy security, together with climate change and poverty, in a holistic manner. It is envisaged that with reduced poverty, the community vulnerability to climate change impacts will be significantly reduced. With unreliable and expensive electricity and nearly a half of the population living below the poverty line, this Vision could turn out to be a mirage.

A number of high-profile studies argue that well designed low-carbon policies and strategies can generate positive effects not only for the environment, but also for economic and social growth.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 underlines the need for urgent and bold action and Kenya has not only made a commitment to reduce the national GHG emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 in its intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), but the country has also enacted a climate change law, which assigns responsibilities for addressing climate change to all stakeholders, including the public and private sector players.

Better quality of life

However, government policies designed to reduce emissions and poverty may face resistance for a variety of economic, technical, social and political reasons. Politicians may be concerned that measures necessary to facilitate change may harm their standing with powerful interests, based inside or outside the country.

The promise of equitable growth for all citizens and peace between people and their environments lies in knowing how to weave together energy security, environment, equity and sustainable development in such a way as to exercise sufficient social and political leverage to break up the obsolete and exclusive centralist, cliquey, and sectorial vision.

With the general election scheduled for 2017, a lot of donor and private support and the need to address energy security, equity, poverty and climate change all converging at the same time, what better opportunity could be there for the public to hold the political players to account and ensure Kenya takes a development pathway that ensures energy security, equity in all aspects of growth, poverty reduction at the lower income levels of the society and sustainability in order to realise the Vision 2030, which promises all citizens a better quality of life.

Tom Owino is a climate change and energy consultant, tom.owino@climatecare.org.