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Kenya Power, please spare us the whining about solar

By XN Iraki | December 8th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Some of the directors view the solar panels on the roof of Ashut company in industrial area. The panels have reduced power consumption by 15-20 per cent.. [George Njunge, Standard]

Kenya Power’s concern over consumers defecting to cheaper solar power away from the national grid is expected.

The listed company must have been rattled by the dent the move has caused on its balance sheet as demand shrinks. We understand the language of money more than any other.

Paradoxically, Kenya Power is concerned about defection when many homes in the countryside have no power connection. Ask them, they point at high power costs for staying in the dark even when they are connected!

Power lines were installed in my village more than 10 years ago, but mum and most of my neighbours prefer solar power.

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That Kenya Power does not have a good name among Kenyans is not something to debate about.

Truth be told, Kenya Power is not a bad company, but most monopolies tend to behave badly. That is why the police have a bad name; they too are a monopoly.

Before Kenya Power, we had Kenya Post and Telecommunications Corporation (KPTC). I had to wait for two years to get my fixed line installed.

Innovations made it easier to get a phone - one that you carry in your pocket. Why should Kenya Power dream of immunity against innovation? 

Has Kenya Power heard of “creative destruction,” where one superior innovation destroys or replaces another?

Mobile phones destroyed the fixed lines, while cars replaced horse carriages. Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the term in 1942, considered it “the essential fact about capitalism.”

Back to the issue at hand, will solar power destroy the grid? Are Kenya Power and the regulators overreacting? Do you recall banks trying to stop M-Pesa on its tracks?

Even horse-drawn carriage owners tried to resist the car. Bicycle owners did not just embrace motorbikes, but many workers got used to computers. Tea pickers do not want to hear of tea picking machines. Torches on our phones, solar-charged lamps and other gadgets did Eveready in.

What is strange about Kenya Power and solar power is the quick reaction of regulators who should be neutral.

Why did the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (Epra) come up with proposals that clearly seem to favour Kenya Power? 

Why target solar power? Why not lamp makers too? Why not independent power producers (IPPs)? Why not generator sellers?  Why was there no issue when KenGen said they are seeking regulatory appraisals to sell power directly to consumers? 

Do you recall a law that required every household and three-bedroomed apartments and above to install solar water heating systems? Was it not from Epra? 

The best option for Epra is to ensure that consumers have choices. We all want to be rich so as to have choices. I wonder what the Competition Authority of Kenya would say about the new regulatory proposals by Epra. 

Big and small power consumers are after the cheapest power available.

We do that for other services from haircuts to water. We hope that the lower costs do not compromise quality. What is the best option for Kenya Power? This would be to improve on the services; they have what it takes to give better services.

They should also have more prepaid metres so that consumers pay on time. If the big consumers are defecting, focus on the small consumers.

Connect as many as possible. Be like Equity Bank that focused on the “small people“ who trooped to the bank in droves.

Why does Kenya Power think they need the money more than the consumers? 

One of the issues raised regularly is that Kenya Power deals with KenGen and IPPs on the basis of “take it or leave it” in terms of the price it offers them.

Should the two companies not be working more closely with some cross-board memberships? Why should Kenya Power fear competition? We even compete for wives, why not cheaper power? 

Let’s accept that the age of solar power has arrived. It is not going away. Kenya Power needs to accept that reality.

Kenya Power can even become one of the suppliers of solar power.

The founding President Jomo Kenyatta asked bus owners to sell their buses and buy matatus when they complained about them. 

Technology has advanced enough to make solar power affordable and cheaper.

Kenya Power must give way to technology despite its legacy. What happened to all the Kenya Post and Telecom lines? 

Kenya Power and regulators should not fight an idea whose time has come. We live in the tropics where sunshine is plentiful. Solar farms will soon become common.

Even our roofs are now solar farms.

Should Safaricom stop us talking to each other face to face to make more money? By embracing M-Pesa and becoming M-Pesa agents, banks won a battle they could not have. Can Kenya Power learn from this?

We can’t talk of industrialisation based on cheap power and at the same time resist cheap solar power.

Kenya Power can’t stop innovations, they better ride on them. Economic problems need economic solutions; political solutions can’t work.

It seems to me there is more than meets the eye in Epra’s quick action to slow down the uptake of solar power through new regulations.

- The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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