In the United States, we tend to think of electricity as something that is either on or off. You either have power, or you don’t. But in Nairobi, Kenya, electricity is experienced more like the hot water in an old building: sputtering, low-voltage brownouts contrast with sudden voltage spikes and power surges. Inconsistent electrical power does more harm than a suddenly ice-cold shower; refrigerators, computers and manufacturing equipment are frequently damaged, and routines are disrupted. Power outages cost the country an estimated 2 percent of gross domestic product annually.
That’s because the country’s power plants can provide just 1.2 gigawatts of electricity. The United States has more than 960 gigawatts of capacity, and one of its largest utilities, American Electric Power, serves about 5 million customers with its 38 gigawatts of generating capacity. In Kenya, that 1.2 gigawatt capacity serves more than 10 million customers, including homes, businesses, and industry—less than 30 percent of the entire country’s population. The remaining 70 percent have no electricity at all.
Kenya’s “Vision 2030” plan, widely praised when it was announced in 2008, calls for 10 percent annual economic growth, and estimates that at least 20 gigawatts of new energy capacity will need to come online in the next decade to support it. To achieve that goal, dozens of efforts are underway to aggressively expand Kenya’s electric power infrastructure and, in doing so, to “leapfrog” over fossil fuels toward a clean-energy economy.