Hard questions about the on and off power outage

Four Kiambere-Embakasi voltage transmission towers tumbled near a railway line and Mukuru kwa Reuben neighbourhood in Imara Daima, Nairobi, affecting power supply in Nairobi and some parts of the country. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Hours of darkness and a wishy-washy explanation. That is what Kenyans were fed yesterday following a nationwide power outage.

There has been no spectacular wind, no hailstorm, no earthquake…. nothing out of the ordinary. The transmission towers just came tumbling down like a house of cards, knocking off some shillings from the balance sheet of many businesses.

Even high-ranking energy officials drawn from Kenya Power and Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (Ketraco), in a press briefing did not have a ready answer to what caused the four towers to tumble.

“As investigations continue to find what caused the towers to collapse, a team of experts together with engineers on the ground are hoping to have power restored by the end of the day,” said the acting Kenya Power Managing Director Rosemary Oduor.

Ms Oduor assured the public that power restoration had already begun.

The chair of Kenya Electricity transmission company (Ketraco) Joe Mutambo only assured Kenyans that power will be fully restored by the end of the day throughout the country.

Ketraco’s acting MD Anthony Wamukota urged locals to give the specialists an easy time to work around the clock to restore the towers and find the root cause of the collapse.

The collapse of the four towers on the Kiambere-Embakasi high voltage transmission power line occurred at around 10.45 am this morning, said Kenya Power in a statement.

It added: “Our engineers are working to restore electricity supply as the repairs are being undertaken. An update on the restoration progress will be issued in due course.”

On Monday, there was another outage that affected several parts of Nairobi, driving up outbursts from Kenyans on Twitter.  

A national power outage is a national security issue. Power players are expected to have a contingency plan or at least a plausible explanation of the events.

Neither was available. Kenyans were just left groping in the dark.

But it is the increased frequency of these black-outs over the last two or so months that has got Kenyans worked up.

The public is still waiting for an explanation on what caused the collapse of the 430 kilometre-long 400 kilovolts (kV) transmission line from Loiyangalani to the Suswa substation resulting in power rationing between 7pm and 9.30 pm in some regions and estates just before Christmas.

With the blackouts, a few customers with fat bank accounts get to fall on expensive diesel-powered generators to keep operations in their homes, offices and factories running. But for the millions of poor but loyal households and businesses, everything stops. And, unfortunately, lives and livelihoods can also stop.  

Kenya Power has in the last two months been in the spotlight with President Uhuru Kenyatta triggering a purge on its operations and management by appointing a special task force to look into the entire power value chain. The aim of the probe is to clean the power distributor and bring down the cost of power.

Conspiracy theorists have already started speculating that there might be sabotage. There has been no evidence of sabotage.

Kenya power is the sole power distributor, which in some instances, has been making losses.  Part of the reason for the utility’s dismal financial performance has been poor governance, corruption, inefficiency, wastage, and high cost of power from producers that have not been compensated with an equivalent increase in the tariff they charge consumers.

Perennial power outages have been a uniquely Kenyan story, thanks in part to an old and poorly-maintained electricity infrastructure.

In June 2016, Kenya made headlines around the world when officials from the power generating firm KenGen said that a five-hour power outage resulted from a trip on a transformer at Gitaru hydroelectric power station after a monkey fell on it.

The comical explanation given by KenGen made some people literally describe the turn of events as ‘monkey business.’

“A monkey climbed on the roof of Gitaru Power Station and dropped onto a transformer tripping it. This caused other machines at the power station to trip on overload, resulting in a loss of more than 180 MW from this plant which triggered a national power outage,” KenGen said in a statement then.

But for many businesses and homes that have had to endure uncountable losses as a result of these perennial power outages, there was nothing funny about this.

At the time, the Ministry of Energy’s panacea for the unending outages was an alternative high voltage transmission line.

The country’s old electricity transmission lines, the ministry noted, are grossly inefficient and even the slightest interference from pesky monkeys can lead to prolonged power outages.

The officials noted that almost all of the country’s power was fed by one old and inefficient power line from Suswa substation in Kajiado County.

This inefficient 220 kilovolt (kV) line served more than 60 per cent of the county’s power needs.

They assured Kenyans that the outages would continue until November 2016 when Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (Ketraco) was expected to complete the construction of a new line from Suswa substation to Isinya and eventually Embakasi.

This line has since been completed. But the power outages continue. And the explanations are not getting any better.