May 7, 2020

Electricity providers, COVID-19 uncertainties and open debate

Commotion as high tension cable snaps in Lagos

By Ikenna Oguguo

AS citizens and customers, the public is the ultimate subject of the on-going debate between Nigeria’s power providers which continued Saturday, April 2, 2020. In an open letter, the Transmission Company of Nigeria, TCN, recommended the “capitalisation of Distribution Companies”, DisCos.

TCN’s suggestion to capitalise is among that of many others calling for the same, with the presumed expectation that infrastructural investments by DisCos would improve the low hours of electricity that customers experience. While the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company, AEDC, issued a response acknowledging the need for improvements, questions remain about whether capitalisation should take priority over other possible steps.

Therefore, a deeper consideration of the ways our problems may be neutral to capitalisation are warranted. While AEDC focused on the need to prioritise the improvement of TCN’s protection system, citizens’ imminent concerns relate to three other key issue areas.

1) Supply is unpredictable, people still have no advance awareness of when their locality will have power during normal conditions;

2) high levels of inequities exist, meaning some (typically affluent) localities enjoy considerably longer hours of electricity than others; and

3) there is weak accountability to customers, who are liable to pay their standby generators’ operating costs or stay in darkness, while also remaining unclear as to who in the value chain is responsible for improving year-on-year performance.

The link between capitalisation and predictability – or equity, or accountability – not only seems weak but these three problems may become more salient if the sector continues investments without addressing such foundational elements. In other words, electricity woes will persist until predictability, equity and accountability can be built into the system we already have. In other words, electricity woes will persist until predictability, equity and accountability can be built into the system we already have.

What is apparent is how the poorest are going unheard during this COVID-19 experience, especially when it comes to public services like electricity for cooking, storing food, studying, being entertained or staying commercially productive.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: Government can’t pay N100bn electricity bill for Nigerians ― Minister

As it is, Nigerians get an average of 3.6 – 6.3 hours of electricity per day, but this average is made up of unannounced cuts that sometimes last days or weeks. Only 26 per cent of Nigerian households have generators to mitigate this problem, and most of these are likely those who live in better-served areas or can afford the premium tariffs to get supply of up to 20 hours a day.

Members of government and the electricity companies have shown a clear awareness of this challenge and have focused on complex solutions that citizens could benefit from.

However, the populace also recognizes that help must be time-sensitive. The initiative for free electricity for two months as a palliative is failing to come true. Likewise, the way DisCos deal with reports of disruption on twitter may be inadvertently exclusive to those who have the knowledge and resources to be on twitter requesting service restoration.

There is clearly a consensus on the need for bolder measures, and the centrality of the role of DisCos is evident. However, as stated by the AEDC management in their response on April 26, it is important we are strategic and deliberate about what those actions are to ensure inclusivity during these times.

To progress towards predictability, equity and accountability, it makes sense to work towards scheduling power availability for each locality, also known as a load shedding schedule. Simply, people would like to know – in advance – when the providers intend to supply electricity to their area and for how long. It is an idea our sector had previously seen as important, and some electricity companies published schedules in some formas recently as 2017, but have since ceased.

In terms of predictability, citizens can plan their use of resources, and hence, their productivity. The transparency would help improve equity, so no localities are being left too far behind. And, year-on-year, the sector could set collective improvement targets that are understood and beneficial to all classes of citizens.

Simply, people would like to know – in advance – when the providers intend to supply electricity to their area and for how long. Undoubtedly, there are challenges with such transparency. Zambia and South Africa both publish schedules for the benefit of their sectors, and their experiences may provide foresight that improves adaptation in Nigeria.

As AEDC demonstrated in their enumerations of infrastructural faults of April 23, 2020, structural constraints will limit the accuracy of a predictive schedule.

To mitigate this, Zambia’s schedule includes a disclaimer indicating that uncertainties may lead to updates on short notice, and those are communicated by an SMS system. Over time, as the members of the sector work towards the common goal of a schedule that the public can heavily rely on, measurable progression should emerge.

Of course, Nigerians are neither Zambians nor South Africans, therefore, contextual variations must also be considered. Thus, we must remain aware that the task of such an improvement is one that would call for unprecedented acclaim should our sector’s leaders deliver.

Although DisCos could lead such an initiative, NERC should play a role as the independent regulator.

Likewise, as 40 per cent-owner of DisCos and full owner of TCN, the federal government could be the node that encourages cooperation and expedience.

Oguguo, a chartered engineer and member of the Institute of Engineering and Technology, wrote via LinkedIn|@tweetWTBL