Sunday, April 14, 2024

Kenya’s Energy Transformation In The Eyes Of An Octogenarian Engineer


Hindpal Jabbal bought his first car, a Volkswagen 504, at a cost of four thousand shillings ($40) in 1960, three years before Kenya claimed independence from colonial rule.

Back then, some 60 years ago, a litre of petrol cost Sh1 (one shilling), the 83 year-old man reminisces of the golden old days. Today, a litre of petrol costs in excess of Sh100.

The former chairman of the then Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) would spend Sh100 (one dollar) in fuel expenses for a round trip between the lakeside city of Kisumu and the capital Nairobi. ERC last year rebranded to Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) following the enactment of the Energy Act 2019.

Jabbal, a retired electrical engineer with a signature turban head cloth popular with the Sikh Indian community, reflects on the heady days in his service to Kenya’s energy sector. He admits the energy landscape has radically shifted over the years. During his time, households had to be connected to the national grid to have electricity unlike nowadays even off-grid homes can still access power through solar solutions – a relatively new field.

Jabbal says his professional journey started in 1958, soon after he graduated from university in India where he had gone for schooling and flew back to Nairobi seeking employment.

Fresh and highly ambitious, the first stop for the then young man was naturally Kenya Power given his background in electrical engineering. Back then, Kenya Power covered the entire chain from power generation, transmission to distribution/retail. The octogenarian recalls, with a sense of nostalgia, the utility firm was largely managed by Whites.

He wasn’t successful the first time in his job hunt and was turned down.

The turndown didn’t, however, dim his lights and the young man soon convinced his grandfather to work at his printing press in Nairobi.

It’s from the savings he made from the family job that he bought his first car at Sh4,000 – a price that is now hardly enough to buy a new car tyre.

In 1961, three years after graduation and aged 26 years, he was back knocking on the door of Kenya Power, bright-eyed and bushytailed. This time he landed a deal as a junior engineer, effectively opening up his path in the country’s energy landscape.

Then in 1966, he applied for commonwealth scholarship and got accepted to study masters in Power Systems at the University of Manchester for two years in the UK.

With a tinge of nostalgia in his voice, he recalls Kenya Power back then had a company car scheme in which employees would be given company cars (Toyota Corona), plus mileage allowance. And after four years, employees could buy the car at half its price if they so wished.

In 1971, soon after returning back to Kenya from the UK study, he was promoted to the office of assistant chief engineer in charge of planning at Kenya Power. It’s a position he served in diligently. Seven years later, he represented Kenya in a three-month fellowship programme in Washington DC where he sharpened his skills in Finance and Economics aspects of the energy sector.

Then in 1987, aged 50 years, he retired only to be offered a commonwealth power engineer job two months later in the Caribbean nation of Dominica. Here, he worked for four years.

Soon after, the father of three adult children landed a consultancy job for the World Bank where he was part of the team that unbundled Kenya Power’s role, hiving off power production role and assigning it to KenGen.

Finally in 2008, based on his vast experience, former President Mwai Kibaki appointed Jabbal as the board chairman of the then Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), a role he played until 2011.

Jabbal, who has written extensively in the dailies on power sector, was recently feted in the Sikh Awards, for his outstanding work and contribution to Kenya’s energy sector.

He’s a known tough critic of government policies with regard to energy planning and projects implementation.

The octogenarian recalls of the early 1970s when Kenya was almost completely reliant on hydropower imports from neighboring Uganda that was then under the rule of the late dictator Idi Amin.

At some point, he recollects, Idi Amin resorted to economic sabotage after an altercation, switching off power supply to Kenya.

“We were thrown into darkness,” he smiles, noting that it forced Kenyan officials to explore other alternatives. Though Kenya was also producing hydropower, it wasn’t enough to meet the needs of the economy at the time, thus the imports.

“It was a turning point,” he quips, emphasising the point with his characteristic head nod.

It wasn’t until 1981, that Kenya constructed its first geothermal power plant, the Olkaria 1, helping the country to diversify its sources.

While Kenya still imports hydropower from Uganda to serve the western part of the country, it has completely reduced its exposure by diversifying its energy mix to include wind, thermal, hydropower, solar and geothermal. Geothermal now accounts for about half of the country’s generation mix.

In an interesting twist, Jabbal reveals he believes not in God or any other Supreme Being but in energy whose empirical qualities he equates to those of God.

For the old man, God and energy is one and the same.

So how does energy qualify to be a god?

For starters, he cites the First Law of Thermodynamics which states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed; but can only be transformed from one form to another.

“God, as you people believe, is yet the only other thing that cannot be created nor destroyed, but can take all forms,” he says then pauses for the correlation to marinate and become clear in this writer’s mind.

After a short while, he proceeds to run further parallels between energy’s qualities and God’s.

“God is infinite, God is invisible and God is immanent. So is energy,” the bespectacled old man quips with finality, emphasising his point with a head nod.

As for now Jabbal’s next task is to write a book capturing his journey in Kenya’s energy sector.

Read also: A Peek Into Kenya’s New Steam Power Plant

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