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Electricity for all as an economic and political imperative (1)

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ENERGY, POWERIN our contemporary 21st century digital industrial civilisation, no country can claim to be among the ranks of civilised nations if the bulk of its population have no access to steady power and energy. In our day and age, access to electricity is not a privilege; it is a right.  The basic science of electricity has been known since the days of the ancient Greek mathematicians and scientists such as Archimedes, Pythogaras, Euxodus and Anaximander. As far back as the 18th century, the English scientist, Martin Gilbert, did research and wrote profusely on what he termed “electricus.”

The great American scientist, philosopher and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, also did research on lightning as a source of electricity. But it was not until 1879 that his compatriot, the inventor Thomas Edison, discovered the electric bulb. This meant that electrical power could now be transmuted into a form of energy that lightens homes, streets and cities. From that day until today, electricity has been the primary means for powering our modern industrial civilisation.

Electricity is a 130-year-old technology. It is no longer akin to rocket science or quantum physics. We Nigerians are a gifted people. We are capable of total mastery over our electricity and power challenges. There is nothing we cannot achieve if only we put our mind and heart in it. What has been lacking is leadership, vision and the will to implement.

According to records, the first power plant in Nigeria was installed in Marina, Lagos, in 1898, with a capacity of 60kw. This was barely 15 years after electricity generation began in England. With the 1914 amalgamation of Southern and Northern Nigeria several other cities were electrified in succession: Kaduna, 1929; Enugu, 1933; Maiduguri, 1934; Yola, 1937; Zaria, 1938; Warri and Calabar, 1939. The rest, as they say, is history. An independent power plant based in Kurra Falls, Plateau State, was constructed by Amalgamated Tin Mines Company and began operation as far back as 1929.

Among the most important milestones was the construction of Kainji Dam which began in 1962 and became operational in 1968. The project came under the aegis of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) which was created in 1946. Its successor was National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), created in April 1972.

The unbundling of the power sector during the Third Republic under President Olusegun Obasanjo led to the emergence of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). Electricity supply was deregulated through emergence of independent power distribution companies (DISCOs). The Electric Power Reform Act 2005 was a major milestone. It led to the emergence of six generation companies and 12 distribution companies covering the 36 states of the federation. However, power distribution remains in government hands. Over the last decade, the Federal Government has spent over $25 billion on the power sector. Unfortunately, the maximum we have attained in terms of power generation is 7,000MW, of which only 5,000MW is actually being distributed. One of the critical challenges is that of distribution. The infrastructure for distribution remains weak. It also remains a monopoly of government.

A report released in April this year, Deloitte showed that progress in electrification has been lowest in Africa, a continent where only 25 per cent of the populace have access to electricity. To accelerate electrification of our continent, Deloitte advocates focus on three principal areas: bridging the financing gap, enabling energy transactions, and unleashing radical transparency. The firm also advocates use of modern ICT such as digitalisation and blockchain. The latter refers to technology that can facilitate transactions or any transfer value in a manner that is verifiable and permanent; a transparent and shared transaction ledger in accounting systems. Use of blockchain is vital because electrification is an expensive process. There must be guarantees that investors will be paid, developers can recoup their money and that power generators and distributors will recover their funds.

The central problem with the power sector is fundamentally the fact that it remains a highly centralised operation. What we need to do is to decentralise power generation and distribution. We need to allow states working individually or as regions to invest in power generation and distribution. We favour a decentralised approach in which states can cooperate to generate and distribute power on a regional basis. We also favour a modular approach in which states and regions can generate and distribute their own electricity. The Federal Government will play a steering role, but need not be the dominant or exclusive monopoly.

We must also invest heavily in distribution sector. What we currently lack as a policy is commitment to deregulating the distribution sector. We need to go into partnerships with foreign investors to come and set up plants in our country to manufacture the cables and other equipment vital to the power distribution sector. What we also do not have is a policy framework to drive electrification both in the towns and in the rural communities.

Currently, only 50 per cent of Nigerians have access to power of any kind. The average household enjoys only 6.5 hours of electricity on a daily basis. We believe that universal access to electricity is not a privilege; it is a right for all our citizens. However, we are aware that many communities live in isolation from the main national grid.

If I were the president, I will issue an Executive Order requiring that all government buildings at federal, state and local government levels must have off-grid electrical power systems installed on them. Priority should be given principally to solar panels that we believe can easily be installed in all government buildings, including schools and clinics. This is of course not a complete solution to the power problem. But it will reduce the deficit by a considerable margin while boosting productivity and efficiency. We can only imagine what a boost it would be for rural schools and for rural clinics. In the case of the latter, it would be possible to store vital medicines and blood banks which could be life-savers for expectant mothers and others facing medical emergencies.

What any sensible leadership must do is to revisit the power sector with a view to designing a comprehensive solutions-based approach. A major issue facing the power sector is political capture by vested interests. Those who are engaged in importation of generators will do anything to kill the power sector. Some of these people have held key political appointments, and ironically, were even involved in implementing our national power policy. They chose to implement in a way that would ensure the power sector does not work, thereby creating opportunities for generator importation. Today, Nigeria has the dubious prize of being the world capital for importation of generators. These generators not only create the externalities of environmental and noise pollution; they feed into the diesel-importation cartel. Nigerians are the worse for it.

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I believe that within four years it is possible to upscale power generation to at least 20,000MW while boosting distribution by 100 per cent. It is foolhardy to lump the power sector together with works and housing. We need a stand-alone power ministry with a minister who is committed and passionate about ‘Electricity for All.’ We should bring in foreign partners and investors. We shall take a hands-on approach. We must also declare a state of emergency on the power sector. We must not allow anyone or any selfish interests to stand in our way. Part of the problems with this vital sector is theft and vandalism of electrical equipment. It is necessary to institute maximum punishment for such crimes.

There is also the problem of poor maintenance culture. The DISCOs have little or no interest in maintenance. Once they are guaranteed a steady income stream, they could care less about maintenance. We shall empower the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) to monitor the issue of maintenance and to exact fines on companies that fail to respond immediately to breakdowns and customer complaints. We must be prepared to re-nationalise power companies that fail below statutory expectations.

All is possible. For those with faith, nothing is impossible. The famed British SAS Special Forces and the feared Israeli commando brigade Sayeret Matkal, share a common motto: He who dares, wins. We will dare and we will surely win!

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