Kenya plans to provide its citizens and businesses with nuclear power within 5-10 years. Kenyans are reportedly thirsty for more electricity, and power generation is a key pillar of Kenya’s Vision 2030. To this end, the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board (KNEB) has been working closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in following a detailed checklist that will result in not one, but four nuclear power plants across the countrywith an eventual total output of 4,000 MW of power.If completed, the nuclear power plants would close to double Kenya’s current installed electricity capacity and provide electricity to Kenya’s growing economy. While sites for the proposed nuclear plants have not yet been identified, Kenya has already signed MOUs with Russia, China, South Korea and Slovakia; France is also considering Kenya as a viable option for nuclear power generation.
According to KNEB CEO Collins Juma, Kenya will need between 17,000 and 21,000 megawatts (MW) to achieve its Vision 2030 goals of industrialisation and income generation. As such, Juma unequivocally stated that nuclear energy is no longer a choice for Kenya, but a requirement. KNEB is hoping to have the first nuclear plant come online in 2022, to the tune of Ksh500 billion. This means that four nuclear plants may cost Kenyans upwards of Ksh2 trillion.
How much power does Kenya really need?
Kenya reportedly suffers from the twin evils of electricity that is overly expensive and in short supply. At least this is the popular narrative – and there is some truth to it. Yet there is also robust evidence that Kenya’s power is relatively cheap, if unreliable, and that successive Kenyan governments continue to exaggerate both Kenya’s true needs for power and its economic growth trajectory. This should leads one to question KNEB’s calls for a massive increase in power generation via nuclear methods and means.The reality is that Kenya will need more power. But how much power? Does it need 4,000 MW now? What about in five years? And will it need upwards of 20,000 MW in a decade? Additionally, can Kenya somehow generate power by means that are more readily available and far less expensive than nuclear? Let’s take stock of what Kenya already does and has.
Kenya reportedly has a current installed capacity of just over 2,400MW, against a peak demand of just over 1,600MW. Simply put, Kenya is already generating more power than it actually uses at peak hours. On one level this make sense because economies, as a rule of thumb, need to have surplus power capacity up to a given level. However, generating power beyond that level necessarily leads to higher power bills as consumers are often charged for idle power plants. Should Kenya’s government pursue nuclear power generation other than, or in addition to, other sources of power generation, it will be saddling consumers not only with higher power bills but also with huge amounts of debt. In other words, KNEB and others in the Kenyan government are inadvertently thwarting their promises of cheaper power in the pursuit of nuclear power plants and other costly projects that fail to reflect both industrial and private consumer demand. These eventualities need to be seriously considered particularly when the government is considering getting into billions of shillings in debt.
Supply and demand
One of the problems with calculating a country’s power needs, electricity tariffs or other information related to power generation and consumption is that the figures are often conflicting. However, in the case of Kenya, a 2013 study performed at the behest of Kenya’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum as well as the Energy Regulatory Commission provided good evidence regarding actual demand and supply in Kenya – and just how exaggerated government figures have been. The German consultancy noted that Kenya’s maximum power demand would “grow 72 percent to 2,259MW by 2020 from the current 1,620MW, when projects such as the standard gauge railway start operating fully. Government estimates, on the other hand, indicate that the peak demand will jump threefold to 4,755 megawatts in the three-year period, which is double that of the consultant.”In other words, Kenya’s energy needs are not yet those of an industrialised country and have been consistently inflated.
I have written, as have others, how Kenya may eventually be among the first countries to leapfrog not just certain technologies, but the industrialisation process itself. While this is obviously a subject of some debate, a connection to every non-urban home in Kenya – given costs and logistics – is something that arguably makes little fiscal or logical sense at present, particularly as self-consumption of households in Kenya can be revolutionised by cheaper and cleaner solar and renewable solutions.This is because demand from Kenya’s domestic consumers remain low even though a total of 5.8 million customers now have connections to power – a five fold increase in the past seven years.
According to a 2015 study by the Institute of Economic Affairs, there are three main sources of energy in Kenya: biomass at 69 percent, petroleum at 22 percent and electricity at 9 percent. These three figures represent the sources of total energy consumption in Kenya. There is little to suggest these figures have changed much over the past two years. The point here is that low consumption of electricity by the vast majority of Kenyan consumers is not because of lack of connectivity or unreliable supply. Nor is it because of relatively high electricity tariffs. Rather, many Kenyans simply cannot afford to pay for electricity – even if they are connected to the grid now or in the future. This is a controversial statement and, for some, may seem to imply that many Kenyans are not deserving of power simply because some of them happen to be materially poor. Let me be clear, Kenya does need to generate more power. It needs to do so because of existing as well as future demand. The rationale behind this statement is sound: that by expanding access to electricity for more Kenyans they will reap the benefits of enhanced education, lifestyle and productivity. In doing so they will be actively contributing to a growing economy and fattening their wallets.
So while the benefits of access to electricity are not in question, one should add that simply because my home is connected to the grid does not mean a) I can afford it; or b) if I can afford it, will begin using more power through the purchase and use of appliances such as refrigerators and electric washers. The relevant point here is that Kenya does need to generate more electricity to drive economic growth and enhance incomes. However, that generation should be driven by realities on the ground rather than prognostications that take as their starting point the electricity generation needs of industrialised economies. In other words, building vastly expensive nuclear power plants does not make sense right now.
Power generation and the grid
When building any power generating infrastructure – whether that is related to nuclear or solar or wind – Kenya’s government must pay equal attention to the country’sgrid and distribution system. This is currently inadequate to handle additional power.With the addition of nuclear energy, Kenya’s grid will require serious and costly upgrades. According to Anthony Stott, a senior nuclear engineer with the IAEA’s nuclear infrastructure development section, “The IAEA has a ballpark figure that 10% of your [country’s] capacity could be nuclear. Which means that if you want 1000MW [from nuclear power] your grid should have a capacity of 10,000MW as a rough figure.”
Taking Stott’s figures at face value one can see that Kenya’s grid is woefully inadequate to handle electricity produced by just one nuclear plant, let alone four. When you add other power generating infrastructure projects, to include costly and ill-advised projects such as the Lamu coal-fired power plant, one can readily see that issues of demand as well as supply will be exponentially exacerbated.
As noted, Kenya’s current effective installed (grid connected) electricity capacity is in the neighbourhood of 2,400 MW as of March 2015. However, even this low figure is subject to some dispute. According to a Kenya Engineer article from mid-2016, the interconnected system in Kenya only has a total installed capacity of 1,533 MW made up of 761.0 MW of hydro, 525 MW of thermal, 198 MW of geothermal, 5.45 MW of wind , 26MW from cogeneration and 17MW of isolated grid. It is obvious then that the planners and implementers in Nairobi need to pay as much attention to investing in and developing transmission and distribution infrastructure as they do new sources of power generation. This includes corresponding efforts at regular, systematic maintenance work. In other words, without these any extra power generated from renewable and other energy sources, to include that from the nuclear, will remain costly and wasted.
Over two years ago, after Kenya signed an MOU with China to explore building a nuclear power plant, I argued that sober analysis was required prior to Kenya walking further down the path to nuclear power. The situation remains the same today. This is not a question of whether or not Kenya would be a responsible nuclear power producer. Indeed, all indications are that KNEB and other relevant government agencies have acted scrupulously and responsibly. However, at this stage, both KNEB as well as the IAEA should honestly conclude and announce that Kenya does not have a need for nuclear power. Industrial and consumer demand, economic growth, relative poverty as well as the current grid and distribution network simply do not support this magnitude of power generation at such exorbitant costs. Rather, Kenya’s government needs to work overtime to set a power generation agenda that identifies real versus perceived needs. This should not be another case of putting the cart before the horse; i.e. seeing Kenya’s electricity agenda driven by estimated consumption figures that fail to correspond to Kenya’s true energy needs.
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