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Published On: Mon, Jun 17th, 2019

Mayday! Mayday!!: A Distress Call From The Unreliable Power Sector

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By Kenny Oladipo

The promise of stable electricity is fast becoming another mirage like most government’s promises. It’s somewhat disheartening when a nation of immense human and natural resources still can’t get a handle on the appalling power situation after nearly six decades of self governance. This isn’t ‘rocket science’ is arguably the overused word ever, yet solutions elude successive governments after multiple tries. Obviously, constant power supply isn’t an exclusive preserve of certain countries or people. If it’s possible and doable in any part of the world, the presumption is that it should be possible and doable anywhere else. This age-long challenge is a national disgrace and should be addressed as such. No one, not even the government can give an accurate power generation capacity of the country at any given time. Legislative oversight is virtually non existent, Regulatory Bodies almost ineffective and electricity bills keep skyrocketing errant supply notwithstanding. Something’s got to give before meaningful progress can be made.

Before proceeding further, it is apt to retrace the history of power generation in the country as described by Professor Awosope of Covenant University Otta in his public paper: Nigeria Electricity Industry: Issues, Challenges and Solutions (2014); to properly predicate likely solutions. “The first power plant was installed in Marina, Lagos in 1898, fifteen years after its introduction in England with total capacity of 60KW. After amalgamation of the protectorates in 1914, other major cities like Port Harcourt, Kaduna, Enugu, Maiduguri, Yola, Zaria, Warri and Calabar got their own power plants between 1928 and 1939. These power plants were placed under the control of Native Authorities (NAs).
In 1950, Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) was established to oversee the distribution of electricity across the country. NAs continued to manage the power plants in their localities. Also, Niger Dams Authority (NDA) was inaugurated to generate electricity through hydro power. In 1951, ECN took over all aspects of power generation entirely by absorbing both the Government-owned and NAs power plants and systems. Consequently, there was vast improvement in generation, transmission and distribution as the power systems became vertically integrated. In 1962, an Act of Parliament established Niger Dams Authority (NDA) for the construction of Kainji Dam. The hydro electric power dam was completed in 1968 and became operational shortly afterwards.
In 1966, the expanded national grid began to take shape with Lagos-Kainji, Kainji-Kaduna and Zaria-Kano links to connect Northern part of the country. While Osogbo-Benin-Ughelli and Benin-Onitsha-Afam (Alaoji) were built to service the South.”
These interconnected links were the foundation of the present day national grid and transmission network in the country. For over three decades no significant investment was made to expand transmission capacity of the national grid even while population growth quadrupled and power demands spiked substantially over the same period.
A successor company called NEPA (National Electric Power Authority) came into existence on April 1, 1972 after the merger between ECN and NDA. As the country’s energy demands began to grow and more cities, towns and rural areas connected to the national grid under the National Electrification Program, the demand load on the power systems soon began to have negative impact and to compensate for the shortfall, power rationing was introduced. It initially started with few hours of power outages per week, to multiple outages per day and eventually morphed into the current perennial problem. And like a bad habit the country couldn’t wean itself off it, a blemish tattooed to the frontal lobe of national psyche ever since. Government after Government whistle past the graveyard on the national crisis and occasional palliative measures were taken arbitrarily to project a semblance of action but it was all a ruse. Nothing changed, prompting a frustrated people to revert to self-help by buying power generators to support daily comfort. Corruption, poor maintenance, lack of strategic planning and unstable military governments were notable factors that conspired to do the power sector in.
After years of neglect, in 2005 the moribund entity called NEPA was taken over by the undertaker-company PHCN to prepare its dismantling. PHCN was then subsequently unbundled into 18 companies: 6 Power Generation Companies GENCOs, 1 Transmission Company and 11 Distribution Companies DISCOs. The GENCOs and DISCOs are fully owned by private entities, while TCN is under government’s control in technical partnership with Manitoba Hydro Company of Canada.
With this background knowledge, a cursory look can then be taken at the totality of the challenges and opportunities in the power sector. For Nigeria to reach her full industrial potential, the minimum power generation requirement is 25000MW along with the transmission infrastructure to evacuate all the generation capacity. In comparison, South Africa currently generates 51,309MW of electricity with a population of 56.72 million people. A true giant of Africa isn’t supposed to be outmatched by any other country within the continent on any metric. To accelerate the inherent potentials of the country, the power sector is due a full national attention. To meet power generation goal, the Federal Government needs to keep building power plants in strategic locations across the country, and then sell those plants at a profit to private investors upon completion. The façade of full privatization of the sector may give the government a cover from wholly taking responsibility for the electricity situation,. But it will amount to a substantial error in judgment, if only the private sector is saddled with the duty of boosting power generation in the country. As an example, although power sector is liberalized in the US, yet Federal Government still continues to get involved in power generation through a program called Federal Power Program (FPP). Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) an independent, Government-owned corporation operates under this program, and owns both generation and transmission facilities. Other entities like Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Southwestern Power Administration (SWPA), Southeastern Power Administration (SEPA), and Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) all function under this program. Also a more aggressive enforcement of both the letter and spirit of the contracts signed by DISCOs should be adopted and licenses of non performing entities could be revoked and reassigned to serious investors with requisite financial and technical bona fide.
Incessant system overload and failures appear to have become an art form, where the whole power infrastructure can collapse without warning, plunging the people into avoidable darkness in the process. To resolve this challenge, the bad actors in the system need to be isolated and countermeasures put in place to minimize and ultimately eliminate the effects of these problem areas in the system. There has to be a mechanism in place that can accurately predict lead time to failure for the power systems. Placing sensors at strategic points along the transmission lines to monitor where and when power might go out will definitely improve system reliability. The nagging system collapse issue can be managed while boosting system capacity to meet growing electricity demand, by coopting some novel ideas into the overarching power policies and strategies.
In closing, Ministry of Power ought to be a standalone ministry and not bundled together with Ministry of Works and Housing, and government needs to review that particular merger. Power Sector is a unique sector and cannot be measured, quantified or calibrated in the same way as road networks, bridges or buildings. Electricity is an intangible asset that is transient in value per time and given its criticality to national development, it deserves a ministry of its own for focused attention overseen by industry experts.
Above all, let’s learn as a nation to deploy billions of our collective brain cells to address national challenges first, before throwing billions of dollars at them. Any Government or Organization that shoots first and aims later will more often than not shoot amiss. It’s time for the country to set the right priorities and faithfully pursue them till they are fully achieved.

Houston, Texas
A Reliability Engineer who periodically writes opinions on pressing national issues.

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