Energy Security

Dispute Brews About Wind Farm's Role in Kenya's Nationwide Blackout

Kenya’s government is pinning a nationwide blackout on Aug. 25 to the loss of 270 MW from the 310-MW Lake Turkana Wind Power Plant (LTWP), though the wind generator has denied it was the cause.

The blackout, which lasted more than 20 hours, began at about 9:45 p.m. on Friday, plunging the East African country’s 55 million citizens into total darkness and posing fresh burdens on its economic potential. 

National grid operator Kenya Power and Lighting Co. (Kenya Power), in a statement posted on X (formerly Twitter) on Saturday morning, said the incident stemmed from a loss of generation from the LTWP, Kenya’s largest wind farm, which is located in the arid northern part the country.

LTWP, comprising 365 wind turbines, each with a capacity of 850 kW, is connected to the Kenyan grid through a 438-kilometer (km) government-owned transmission line. The wind farm represents about 17% of the country’s installed capacity. Kenya Power, which owns and operates most of the country’s power operations, including power retail, buys the wind farm’s generated power via a 20-year power purchase agreement. The wind project is owned by six shareholders: Anergi Turkana Investments Limited, Milele Energy Ltd, Vestas Eastern Africa Limited, Finnfund (the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation), Danish Climate Investment Fund I K/S; and Sandpiper Ltd.

The 310-MW Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) in Kenya’s arid Marsabit region has been generating and supplying electricity to the Kenyan national grid since September 2018. The independent power project, one of Kenya’s largest private sector investments, was developed to displace heavy fuel oil and diesel-generated thermal plants. Today, its power provides about 17% of the country’s installed capacity. Courtesy: LTWP

Trading Blame

Kenya Power alleged the loss of 270 MW from the wind farm “triggered an imbalance in the power system and tripped all other main generation units and stations, leading to a total outage on the grid.” System demand when the blackout was triggered was 1,855.8 MW. “Therefore, a loss of approximately 15% of generation was expected to cause a widespread power outage,” the utility said.

Kenya’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum in tweet on Monday morning, echoed Kenya Power’s statement. “Technical teams drawn from Kenya Power and the Kenya Electricity Transmission (KETRACO) are currently reviewing the incidence reports with the view of forestalling such an occurrence in the future. The full findings of the report will be shared with the public in due course,” the ministry added.

LWTP, however, on Saturday issued a scathing denial in response to the utility’s statement, refuting it could be the cause for the broad outage. The wind generator said it “was forced to go offline and stop generation following an over-voltage situation in the national grid system which, to avoid extreme damage, causes the wind power plant to automatically switch off.” Typically, “this interruption would be immediately compensated for by other power generators in the system,” it noted.

LTWP added: “The conclusion that the grid system over-voltage caused this issue is supported by preliminary reports and analysis undertaken by the relevant independent industry stakeholders.” As of Saturday morning, the wind plant remained offline. “During this period, there have been further interruptions and outages in the national grid system, which also remain beyond the scope of LTWP and, in fact, prevent us from bringing the plant back online until these have been resolved.”

On Saturday morning, Kenya Power reported that it had begun a “mobilization for restoration of power supply” as soon as the lines carrying “the affected generation” were isolated. Power from the 600-MW Seven Fork Hydro Dam—a 1968-completed cascade of five hydropower plants (Masinga ,Gitaru,Kamburu, Kindaruma, and Kiambere) on the Upper Tana River Basin—was deployed to kick-start the restoration exercise. However, the option “takes much longer compared to electricity import from Uganda (UETCL), which is faster but was unavailable at the time,” Kenya Power admitted.

By noon on Saturday, most of the national grid had been “sequentially restored,” starting from the country’s central and eastern regions, where the hydropower cascade is located.

Reliability, Affordability a Double-Edged Challenge for Kenya’s Booming Economic Growth

Kenya, one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, is bolstered by robust industries in agriculture, technology, tourism, and financial services, but it has struggled to stabilize its power supply to meet soaring demand, hampered by mismanagement and inadequate infrastructure. While the Aug. 25 incident represents the country’s fifth nationwide blackout in the past four years, it was reportedly the longest nationwide power outage in memory. The incident, notably, cut out the lights at its international airport, which has reportedly not faced a power outage before.

The bulk (nearly 90%) of Kenya’s power is generated with renewables, a point the country’s government will likely highlight when it hosts the first Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi next week, from Sept. 4 to 6. According to Kenya Power, of 12.7 TWh purchased at the end of 2022, 39% was generated by geothermal, 26% by hydro, 16% by wind power, and 13% by thermal sources. Installed capacity stood at 3,078 MW at the end of June 2022, though “total effective interconnected capacity” was just 2,925 MW and “available capacity” was 2,035 MW. System peak demand recorded for 2021/2022 was 2,057 MW.

Kenya Power, a utility founded in 1927 and holds a 95% share in the East African country’s power generation, transmission, distribution, and retail operations, has notably recently come under intense public fire for soaring electricity costs. The affordability crisis in July precipitated week-long rioting, exacerbated by political haranguing about the skyrocketing cost of living. 

In July, the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) posited that owing to higher fuel costs, currency depreciation, and higher electricity tariffs, the price of power has soared by 77% since April 2023. 

Fluctuating global prices for fossil fuel and water shortages afflicting hydropower generation capacity factors have driven up generation costs, the entity suggested. However, among other key factors afflicting consumers is the “pricing of electricity, [including] a fuel cost adjustment, which has been fluctuating in recent years owing to high fuel costs globally.” Meanwhile, “there has also been a lack of investment in energy infrastructure; Kenya has faced challenges in attracting investment in energy infrastructure, which has limited the expansion of the energy sector and increased costs,” the entity said. 

Kenya Power “has also seen challenges in energy distribution. Inefficiencies in the energy distribution system, such as energy theft and distribution losses, have increased electricity costs and resulted in higher consumer prices,” KIPPRA said. “In 2023, the devaluation of the Kenyan currency had contributed to higher electricity prices, as the cost of importing fossil fuels and other energy-related products becomes expensive. Government policies, such as taxes and tariffs, have also raised electricity costs since most dominant players are government-owned.”

That has pushed power affordability to the brink. Demand for electricity is highly inelastic, implying that consumers will have no alternative but to continue using it even when prices increase,” KIPPRA noted. “Electricity consumer bills have been a concern for years, with new higher tariffs burdening consumers, households, and industrial users.” At the same time, “past electricity subsidies by the Kenyan government have not fully addressed the issue, as consumers continue to face high prices, and subsidies create financial burdens for the government,” it said. 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

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