The New Energy Future in Sierra Leone
The most daunting and critical challenges our nation faces today is the energy sector, which is the engine of economic growth for any modern society. The government of President Koroma, almost five years later, has not sufficiently delivered the expanded coverage needed to increase access to electricity in the rural communities and across the country. (Photo: Mohamed C Bah, author)
The poor state of electricity is a serious obstacle to local industrialization, access to job opportunities for the youths and the medical readiness of the health care sector. It is a shame that we, as a nation, has not turn around an aging problem to better serve our communities and transform Sierra Leone into a self-sufficient energy nation.
Today, access to power in Sierra Leone is very low at around 1 to 5 percent in the urban areas and virtually nonexistent in the rural country sides. Sierra Leone’s installed power generation capacity is around 13 megawatts per million which is lower than what other low-income and fragile nations have installed. (Source: Infrastructure and continental perspective-World Bank Report).
This kind of limited coverage is ineptly inadequate and unacceptable by every imaginable standard. The government of Sierra Leone must do more to provide access and expanded services, particularly in the villages, towns and cities across the country.
The energy policy in Sierra Leone is centralized in the capital city of Freetown. The entire existing power infrastructure about 80% is concentrated in the western part of the country. Even with the partial functioning of the Bumbuna power plant, it has only half the suppressed demand for Freetown and let alone that of the rest of Sierra Leone.
The nation is gradually slipping back into a blanket of colossal darkness with no tangible and strategic solutions in the pipe line. The Ministry of Energy and Water Resources lacks the institutional and management resources to effectively handle the energy crisis in Sierra Leone. It must be restructured and streamlined to meet its challenges and obligations to the energy consuming public.
Indeed, Sierra Leone still pays some of the highest tariffs in Africa. Sierra Leone paid three times as much for power as did residents of other African countries that relied on hydropower generation. Thus, making critical and sustainable investments in more cost effective power generation instead of the current thermal energy is an important strategic objective for Sierra Leone in the future.
This is where succeeding governments from the Momoh administration to President Koroma have inadequately failed to provide comprehensive and sustainable solutions to the energy quagmire. We must stop repeating the same mistakes and develop practical ways to solving the energy problem in Sierra Leone.
Perhaps, one of the visible challenges of the energy sector is the current condition of the Bumbuna plant. Since 1974, when the government of President Siaka Steven began this ambitious project, it took almost 38 years to be completed by the Koroma administration on November 6, 2009.Even with the addition of the Bumbuna plant, Sierra Leone’s power generation capacity falls short of meeting residential and industrial demands.
The current installed hydropower system from Bumbuna is seasonal and produces around 50 megawatts during the rainy seasons, but less than 20 megawatts during the dry season. Such fluctuating energy inadequacies are the primary reasons behind the frequent and recent power outages in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone.
The symbol of Sierra Leone’s former energy power house – the Kingtom plant – today lies in ruins. A Siaka Steven energy legacy which served Freetown and its surroundings decades ago virtually has no power generation. It has been plagued with several logistical problems: the malfunctioning of the larger generators at the plant, serious cash flow problems which hinders NPA’s purchase of spare parts and the inability to purchase fuel required to power the diesel plants.
The National Power Authority (NPA) is perhaps the most dysfunctional Ministry in Sierra Leone. In 2010, system losses drained $24.2 million from its revenue flow and collection rates from electricity customers have dramatically declined from 86% decades ago to 50% in 2012.Sierra Leone must reverse this trend and continue to pursue the installed meter system while contracting with national banks to collect utility revenues.
The way forward to solving the energy crisis is first of all: government must stop politicizing the electricity situation and accept responsibility that energy security continues to be a major problem for residential, commercial, industrial and investment needs in Sierra Leone. It is a fact that no alternative form of energy has been seriously developed other than the 80% completed Bumbuna plant in which the Bumbuna residents themselves have no electricity.
That fuel import account for 26% of government import – an expensive energy strategy the Koroma administration must abandon and find new cost-effective ones. The rationing of electricity and the purchasing of more industrial generators will not build a more sustainable energy presence in Sierra Leone. It is a temporal fix that will exhaust government revenues and deprive other sectors from performing their service obligations to the citizens of Sierra Leone.
A new energy future must be a diversified strategy managed by a competent Ministry of Energy and Water Resources that is business oriented and customer friendly. That is transparent in its financial records and its approach in delivering cheaper and reliable services including a razor focus in producing wider access of energy coverage across the country.
If 80% of the power generated by NPA is consumed only in the western area and less than 10% of the Sierra Leonean population have access to electricity, we must develop other alternative sources of energy like: solar power, expanded hydropower around Sierra Leone, wind turbines and Biomass – a tons of waste crops – such as rice husk, rice straw, cocoa husk – which can produced an energy potential of 2,706 GWH. We must reduce our reliance on emergency thermal generation (diesel fuel) which is too costly to maintain and especially when the price of globe crude oil is on the increasing trend nowadays.
Furthermore, importing power from other countries in West Africa is an attractive option to addressing the growing demand for electricity. Sierra Leone must finalize the development plans of transmission network linking its own power grids to nations like Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea. We must also develop over 600 megawatts of interconnector capacity and purchase our power from Ivory Coast which is the region’s largest power exporter from the West African Power Pool (WAPP).
Sierra Leone can even import low-cost hydropower from neighboring Guinea which has an export potential of 17.4 terawatt-hours for Kambia, Koinadugu and Bombali district in the Northern part of the country. Additionally, government can even expand its hydropower within Sierra Leone to produce as much as 1,200 megawatts – a two prong strategy of buying power from neighboring countries and expanding hydropower resources within Sierra Leone. This will broadly increase NPA’s customer base, generate more cash revenues and provide a comprehensive energy future for Sierra Leone.
If Sierra Leone could develop a sound diversified approach in solving the energy mess, the failed efforts of past and present governments will be an illusion of the past. It is frustrating to read from bloggers and social forums about the exaggerated improvement of electricity in Sierra Leone. To say the least, some of these pundits have not visited Sierra Leone for the past couple of months or years and may be consumed with the politics of technology that spreads excessive propaganda across the instant media outlets.
No Sierra Leonean should compromise the welfare of its own people for the sake of political loyalty and partisan obsession. Electricity remains a huge problem in Sierra Leone and needs some urgent solutions. It is an integral part of attracting multi-national investments and fostering development in this modern globalization. The focus should be about expanding coverage to six million people and making energy security affordable and reliable to millions of households and businesses.
By sitting in London and the Olympic city of Atlanta or the Empire State of New York and the friendly city of Berlin to lavish praises on a government that has not adequately addressed the power sector – one is seriously tempted to believe that a terrible injustice has been committed to the poor rural farmer in Pendembu, Kailahun and the struggling student in Sefadu-Kono District, who still relies on candles, paraffin and other local sources of energy.
The energy situation in Sierra Leone is not a political football of who produced more or less and who completed the Bumbuna project – it is about providing uninterrupted and sustainable energy future for the people of Sierra Leone. It is about revitalizing an ailing sector that has deprived millions of households of electricity and woefully failed the investment community.
It is about creating an environment for internet access as a gateway of commerce and trade to the world, electrifying our classrooms and helping our children learn how to read and write through digital tools like computers and other electronic devices. It is about powering our hospitals and saving precious lives. It is about providing the energy resources for farmers to utilize their equipments and yield a higher crop production.
An energy self-sufficient nation must be the new “agenda for prosperity” not the thermal energy that is redundant, wasteful and too costly to maintain. The new way forward is diversification, accountability and a serious focus on making Sierra Leone an energy efficient nation. This is the future we must strive to build.
Mohamed C Bah, USA
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