The consumption of electricity in Kenya is a paradox. On any given day, it is characterised by extremes, with demand almost outstripping the available power. In others, it nosedives to just a fraction of what is available.
Kenya’s installed power generating capacity stands at 2,991 megawatts (MW), with a peak demand of about 2,000MW - creating a 30 per cent reserve margin.
But according to industry players, output from power plants is unlikely to achieve the installed capacity due a mix of factors, as plants rarely get to produce their maximum output.
These factors include efficiency or ageing of a plant as well as the intermittent nature of such energy sources such as wind and solar.
A senior official from one of the power utilities explained that the country has an available capacity of about 2,100MW - a huge difference compared to the installed capacity.
The amount of available capacity could be alarming when looked at from a demand point of view. Peak demand – which is the maximum amount of electricity that Kenyans consume at the busiest point for the grid - recently shot to 2,036MW - nearly outstripping the available capacity.
During the day, such peaks are experienced at around 7pm when households across the country have turned on most of their electric gadgets while most commercial customers are yet to shut down for the day.
The official noted that the reserve margin – the difference between peak demand and available capacity – is too low at between 100MW and 300MW and could be easily outstripped if a few of the major power consumers continued operations past their usual hours of operation.
Demand however falls significantly at about 11pm when most households as well as commercial consumers have shut down - leaving only basics such as security lights on, which persists until about 5am.
During these hours, demand is substantially low, at about 1,200MW.
Ms Khilna Dodhia, chief executive and founder Kenergy Renewables that is putting up the Rumuruti Solar Power plant – noted that the low reserve margin is risky, considering growth in power demand over the recent years. She said there have been delays in completion of a number of power production projects that would have added to both the installed and available capacity.
“We have a reserve margin of about 400MW. You need a reserve margin that is as large of your largest generator on the system to deal with outage. The reserve margins are low and we have been seeing an increase in demand,” she said at a recent media interview. The dire situation caught the eye of the Presidential Taskforce on Review of Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), which noted that the available capacity might go down further in case of prolonged droughts.
During dry seasons such as the one that the country is currently experiencing, the water levels at the key hydropower dams reduces, which in turn cuts power generating capacity.
This, according to the taskforce, has the impact on the available capacity. “While the installed capacity is 2,870MW (this has since increased to 2,991MW), the available capacity is between 2,100MW and 2,300MW and could drop below 2,00MW in a sustained drought,” said the taskforce in the report.
“Meanwhile, peak load is about 2,000MW, meaning the system does not currently have prudent reserve margin, let alone room for growth,” The Energy Ministry has a target for 30 per cent reserve margin. The taskforce noted that mature systems have a minimum of 15 per cent. “The lowest demand occurs between 1am and 5am, when the most significant consumption is associated with the over-night shift of industries that operate 24 hours per day,” said the taskforce in the report.
“Thereafter, demand increases sharply as the bulk of retail customers wake up and prepare for the day. As people and industries engage in their daily activities, there is a plateau between 7am and 6pm, following which there is a sharp increase that culminates in a peak demand at around 7.30pm that lasts for about an hour, driven by domestic consumption. Demand falls off rapidly thereafter back to base load.”
Kenya has in the past tried to persuade industries to operate during the off-peak of between 10pm and 6am, when demand falls substantially. This has however not often seen the desired impacts.
Among the attempts to entice industrialists have been the introduction of the Time of Use tariff, which gives manufacturers a 50 per cent discount on the electricity they consume during these hours.
The downside has been the requirements that they have to meet to benefit from the 50 per cent discount, including their night time consumption being at par or above their day time consumption over the previous three months.
This time round, it has seen an opportunity in the transport sector, which is slowly starting to shift to electric buses.
The Public Service Vehicle (PSV) operators eyeing these buses reason that they could operate them during the day and recharge their batteries at night. Kenya Power says this could be an avenue to grow earnings.
Already, it is in talks with six firms that plan to introduce electric buses in the country.
“Kenya presently has an installed capacity of 2,991MW, and an off-peak load of 1,200 MW. This means that there is enough power to support the entire e-mobility ecosystem, including powering charging stations for domestic and business use,” said Kenya Power acting chief executive Rosemary Oduor at the launch of one of electric buses locally last week.
“From where we stand as an organisation, affordable electricity is a key driver of demand and will undoubtedly make Kenya attractive to both local and international investors. With respect to today’s event, affordable power will definitely drive up the usage of electric vehicles.”
Patterns of consumption among Kenyans mirror consumption in other parts of the world, even developed markets. Although in the latter, the degree of consumption is higher even at night due to higher adoption of 24-hour working cycle, with the extremes not as pronounced as is the case with Kenya.
According to the US’s Energy Information Administration, “the least amount of electricity is (in the US) consumed at night when most people sleep”. The agency however shows different consumption patterns across the year, that are dictated by seasons, with the summer being among the seasons where power is in greater demand during the year due to increased demand for cooling.