With much fanfare, Kenya recently signed an agreement with China (PRC) to build a nuclear power plant in Kenya by 2025. This will be the first of four planned nuclear power plants in Kenya and will generate power of up to 1,000 MW of power upon completion in 2025 and an estimated 4,000 MW by 2033. Kenyan homes and businesses are increasingly thirsty for power and so it appears the decision by the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board (KNEB) to pursue nuclear energy is well-advised.
Yet this article argues that sober analysis is required prior to Kenya walking further down the path to nuclear power. This is because Kenya’s power infrastructure - particularly its existing distribution facilities - is insufficient to handle further generation capacity. With wind, geothermal, coal-fired and LNG plants all planned or in various stages of implementation and construction, Kenya’s power infrastructure simply cannot handle the estimated increase in loads without a correspondingly massive amount of development and maintenance of the transmission grid.
Kenya need for Power and the Problem of System Capacity
No one argues that Kenya’s demand for reliable and cheap electricity has skyrocketed and Kenya’s decision to pursue nuclear power, dating back to 2010, appears prescient and worthwhile. Furthermore, under the leadership of KNEB, great progress has reportedly been made in developing Kenya’s nuclear power under the tutelage and guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Milestones Approach. In other words, KNEB appears to be taking a sober, methodical, internationally-prescribed and safe approach to generating nuclear power in Kenya. So why is Political Engineering urging caution?
In general, the capacity of any new power source such as nuclear or wind should not exceed 10 per cent of any system’s total capacity when added to an existing grid. This is to avoid the problem of overloading. In other words, when too much power passes through the transmission network bad things happen. Bottlenecks occur or portions of the network shut down resulting in blackouts and expensive maintenance work. Alternately, the power generated from a nuclear plant or wind farm is simply wasted, because electricity storage is difficult and expensive. If the electricity cannot be used because the grid cannot transmit it, what is the point of adding more power generation to the grid through a nuclear plant?
The current capacity of many grids in Sub-Saharan Africa is less than 5 GW. Therefore, in many countries the grids are simply too small to handle the addition of nuclear power or any other form of significant power generation. Therefore, if certain African states wish to invest in and develop nuclear power options, they will need to pay corresponding attention to investing in and developing their transmission infrastructure. Functional cooperation is also an option. By this method, countries agree on the best way to share their common resources to better serve their particular region or continent. This is definitely an option for Kenya and one that Political Engineering has supported in previous articles.
Cooperating, Capacity-Building and Sharing Costs
In a nutshell, sharing through functional cooperation is expected to result in reduced transaction costs, enhanced intraregional trade and would greatly assist countries in a particular region with transmission capacity-building. For example, the pooling of Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s electrical grids, something that is already in the works, would likely facilitate greater power exploitation. It would not matter whether the power was sourced from nuclear, wind, geothermal or coal. Indeed, Kenya and Ethiopia are arguably ahead of the game on the continent in the form of the Power System Interconnector Project. This massive project between Ethiopia and Kenya aims to further integrate the electricity markets of the East African Power Pool (EAPP). It plans to do so by interconnecting the power systems of the two countries through the construction of high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) power lines and the transmission of hydroelectric power. In theory, if the proper infrastructure is added to this transmission grid there would be no reason why Kenya and Ethiopia would unable to transmit power generated by nuclear plants. Perhaps Kenya could then sell any excess power it may generate to Ethiopia with the accompanying profits and vice versa?
Why Kenya has Insufficient Distribution Capacity
The fact remains that Kenya’s effective installed, or grid connected, electricity capacity was 2,294 MW as of late 2014. While this figure is impressive it is also misleading. Arguably too much attention has been paid over the past decade in Kenya to increasing connectivity to new consumers. Correspondingly, too little attention has been paid to the distribution facilities that actually connect the power generation source to the consumers. Specifically, investment in maintenance and reinforcement of Kenya’s existing distribution facilities is lacking in the grand plans hatched in Nairobi’s halls of power. Critically, distribution facilities of low voltage (LV) and medium voltage (MV) levels (i.e. 415V, 11kV and 33kV network) have been ignored. According to one report, this has resulted in increased system losses - both technical and non-technical. The losses range from 16 per cent in fiscal year 2009/2010 to approximately 18.6 per cent in fiscal year 2012/2013. Given the rise in losses and the problems with the grid, losses are assessed to be even higher for fiscal year 2014/2015.
In an article written for the engineering yearbook to be published by The Kenya Engineer’s parent company, IPL, Eng. Hindpal S. Jabbal, a former Chairman of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), highlighted major systemic flaws associated with Kenya’s transmission network. Specifically, Eng. Jabbal noted that from 2009-2011 system faults (mainly on the LV network) increased from approximately 6,000 to 9,000 per month. Added to this, transformer failures have increased from approximately 200 to 300 per month, with vandals perpetrating about one-third of these failures. Eng. Jabbal rightly points out that it is these high system losses, such as LV faults and transformer failures, that are the major cause of Kenya’s energy supply being unreliable and of poor quality. This flies in the face of what policymakers seem to perceive as wisdom; i.e. that it is Kenya’s lack of power generation capacity and/or inadequate reserve margins that lead to blackouts and therefore the corresponding reliance on expensive and noisy generators.
No Benefits from Nuclear Power without Distribution Network Development
To recap, no amount of nuclear power will benefit Kenya unless the current distribution network is maintained properly and expanded exponentially to handle the expected transmission loads generated by new sources of power. These contingencies must be built into any blueprint for industrialization and energy development plans in Kenya and they must be carried out in a sustained and methodical manner. The example of solar power generation in the desert is instructive. It is commonly thought that humans could potentially blanket just a small portion of the Sahara Desert with solar panels and produce enough electricity to power all of Europe and North Africa. This is likely true so why has it not been done? The problem, or one of them, lies in attempting to transmit the abundant and cheap solar power in a sustainable, cheap and reliable way. It can be done, but it requires major investments in and development of electrical grids and distribution networks. In other words, the costs may outweigh the benefits.
Kenya should likely pursue nuclear power as an option, especially given agreements committing Chinese expertise and money to the project. But Kenya needs to first develop, upgrade, expand and maintain its distribution network. Kenya could quickly build capacity in this area by exploring functional cooperation with others in the region such as Ethiopia, thereby sharing significantly in both costs and benefits. If Kenya fails to tackle these issues, its plans to develop nuclear power capacity should be junked, along with other projects in the works such as the construction of coal-fired and liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants. Even though Kenyan homes and businesses could use the extra power, the distribution network in its current state simply cannot handle the increased loads.
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