Power outage in Uganda blamed on ‘human error’

Sunday August 21 2022
Isimba hydropower plant.

Water gushing out through turbines after 183MW Isimba hydropower plant was commissioned in May 2019. PHOTO | FILE


Uganda is facing questions on just how much of its generated electricity serves Ugandans, days after the country entered a cycle of irregular supply following collapse of one hydropower station.

According to the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), Uganda produces more power than it consumes, with current installed capacity of 1,346.6MW, against peak consumption of 794MW.

An additional 600MW is expected from Karuma hydropower plant due for phased commissioning later this year.

Yet the country will be forced to import power from Kenya, or its industries will not cope.

Energy minister Ruth Nankabirwa said the emergency shutdown at Isimba dam means key consumers need imported power.

She attributed the shutdown to human error on August 8, by Uganda Electricity Generation Company Ltd (UEGCL) staff, leading to the powerhouse flooding.


It will take at least three weeks before power generation is restored.

“The Uganda Electricity Transition Company Ltd is making sure we get electricity from Kenya. We have been exporting to Kenya, but now we will import 60 megawatts from them,” she said.

The problem, however, is not that Uganda doesn’t have power. Officials said they will also switch to Namanve thermal power plant for an additional 50MW, and an additional 20MW from Kakira Sugar Power Plant.

This will still fall short of the 183MW lost capacity from Isimba, by 93MW. And because the emergency electricity supply cannot plug the gap, the upshot is that for the ordinary consumers, rationing will ensue.

This emerged more than a decade after Uganda decommissioned its diesel-fired power plants that cost the taxpayer millions of dollars in subsidies to stabilise energy supply. At the time of decommissioning the thermal power plants in January 2012, the government had spent $625 million in subsidies to the electricity sector since 2005, according to Ministry of Energy data.

However, industry sources told The EastAfrican that the flooding caused substantial damage within the powerhouse, to equipment estimated at Ush15 billion (nearly $4 million) and it will take a minimum of six months to import and replace the damaged parts.

According to the sources, the flooding nearly submerged the powerhouse which houses generators, turbines and other installations, following a defective radial outflow gate, which also short-circuited switchboards, electric motors, and other equipment.

But in its message to big consumers, the government has not made full disclosure of the damage to Isimba, maintaining that the crisis is short term.

“During a planned maintenance outage, there was ingress of water into the powerhouse necessitating an emergency shut down of the plant as a safety precaution,” the firm said on August 8.

“We are told this is for a short time because we will get some electricity from our neighbours, using the regional power sharing infrastructure, so it shouldn’t affect us,” says Mr Kihembo.