Private electricity producers key to universal power access

The private sector plays an important role in the supply of electricity to the population by supplementing government efforts to increase citizen’s access to electricity.

According to statistics from the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority, as at May 2021 Kenya through Kenya Power had 8.2 million customers connected to the national grid and others supplied via 12 licensed private mini grids.

There were an estimated 10 million users of solar home systems by 2021, further increasing access. The electricity access numbers have grown from 16 per cent to 76.5 per cent in the last nine years with more people being reached by the last mile programme, Kenya Power’s own grid extension and the vibrant private sector mini-grid and off-grid market segments.

We must understand the context of access and where Kenya aspires to be. The World Bank, in its multi-tier framework of measuring access to electricity defines tiers zero to five – from no electricity to 24hr electricity that is of a defined quality, available, reliable, affordable, formally supplied and complying with health and safety standards.

At the top of the access chain the customer should not experience accidents, should be paying formally to the supplier of electricity, spend less than five per cent of household income on electricity, should not have appliances affected by voltage problems and should have at most three disruptions per week of less than two hours.

They should also have at least 23 hours a day of supply, and enough capacity available to undertake productive use of electricity. This is the access that we desire for our population.

Kenya has had an ambitious goal of universal access by 2022. It is our duty to ensure access to services offered by electricity to the entire population and the private sector has a role to play.

To achieve more connections and densification of access to services offered by electricity, the private sector must be encouraged to invest in the provision of solar home systems to the areas where at present it is uneconomical to extend the grid or put up a mini grid. Indeed, this is also envisioned in the Kenya National Electrification Strategy. Homes with solar home systems and individual installations could be interconnected to support clusters of consumers.

Where the needs of the communities are great and the population’s appetite for services is beyond the basic need of lighting and phone charging, productive use must be enabled by the establishment of mini-grid concessions. Kenya has a long history of Kenya Power-run mini grids, away from the national grid and powered by solar hybridised thermal plants that allow access to electric services to towns such as Lodwar and Habaswein.

Today, private companies operate various mini and micro grids based on solar energy plus battery storage. Leveraging on private sector funding and flexibility, remote areas of the country are enjoying lighting and access to information services thanks to private mini grids. These mini grids could expand and continue to operate independently or could act as target nodes for grid expansion as the nature of demand exceeds the mini grid’s capabilities.

It is not enough to have a connection, but the quality and sustainability of the connection is key. As we densify access, focus must also turn to quality of supply and consumer. Small and medium-sized enterprises must be encouraged to grow. This part of the private sector will play a key role in ensuring the connections are utilised and viable, and living standards improved.

The Energy Act, 2019 foresees a much more liberalised energy market where private companies will have a role in distribution, transmission and retail of electricity. This competition at all levels will yield efficiencies and improvements in electricity supply quality.

Today the private sector, through independent power producers, supplies the necessary energy to extend electricity services to Kenyans. They represent 34 per cent of the country’s installed generation capacity.

The country must continue to strengthen the successes in the access journey by ensuring a sustainable path for all citizens to access the services of electricity commensurate with their aspirations for self-improvement. Investments by the private sector will be critical.

The writer is the chairperson of the Electricity Sector Association of Kenya