Countries in frantic search for affordable electricity By COSMAS BUTUNYI THE EAST AFRICAN Posted Monday, March 29 2010 at 00:00 Experts are urging African countries to wean themselves from reliance on expensive thermal sources of energy used during emergency power production. If this call is heeded, governments will no longer have to offer subsidies to consumers neither will electricity consumers shoulder higher tariffs when no intervention is made meaning there will be considerable cost savings on the part of the government. Many African countries, from Kenya and Uganda to Ghana and Namibia use thermal sources to bridge deficits in hydropower production that they largely depend on. In Uganda, the government acquires emergency power at a unit cost of $0.38, up from the $0.03 that Dr Frank Sebbowa, the chief executive of the country's Electricity Regulatory Authority, says they pay for electricity from hydropower stations. Similar scenarios are played out in many African countries where independent power producers capitalise on the countries' desperation to negotiate for high prices. In Namibia, which imports over half of its power, the cost of power rises by about 200 per cent for emergency power used: From only $0.04 per unit of electricity to US cents 12. The Zambian example Amid the reliance on emergency power production on the continent, Zambia stands out as one of the few countries that have avoided the huge expense due to a surplus in power production. According to acting executive director of the country's Energy Regulation Board Joshua Malupenga, the country has been able to strike a balance between power demand and supply. "We do not have deficits presently but we are contemplating putting up a new power plant," Mr Malupenga says. It is for this reason that countries have set in motion the process of tapping into the Zambian power pool. A grid connection is set to be established between Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia to ease power supply. The director of electricity in Tanzania's Energy and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority, Anastas Mbawala says that talks are under way between the governments to set up the link. This, Mr Mbawala says, would open up trade in electricity among the countries thus bridging the deficits. The East African Community is in the process of setting up a regional power pool to address inadequacies in the energy sector. Besides sharing electricity, African countries are also keen on tapping into the knowledge of countries that are doing well in power production. Already, six countries' regulatory bodies have come together under an initiative dubbed African Regulator Peer Review and Learning Network to address the shortcomings in infrastructure policy in the regulators' efforts to achieve their mandate of creating conducive environments to attract investment in infrastructure. So far, the peer reviews that began two years ago, have been conducted in Ghana, Namibia, Uganda, Zambia, and Kenya, by chief executive officers of participating countries and facilitators from Cape Town. Recently, the team was in Nairobi to conduct a review of Kenya's Energy Regulatory Commission. The reviews involve discussions with various stakeholders to assess the performance. Prof Anton Eberhard of the University of Cape Town's Management Programme in Infrastructure Reform and Regulation says that the persistent use of emergency power is due to poor planning by the countries. "This is the only way they can retire expensive emergency power production," he adds. African energy regulators admit that proper planning would reduce most of the power costs that their countries have had to endure. "Countries should plan properly and acquire enough energy sources," says the director of Energy at the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission Emmanuel Fiati. Among the strategies proposed to overcome this challenge are diversification of energy sources, grid interconnection among countries and establishing policies that would encourage investment into renewable energy production. Mr Fiati said that Ghana has put in place measures, including feed in tariffs, which are geared towards achieving its goal of having renewable energy sources accounting for 10 per cent of its production. Already, a study has been commissioned to develop a regional power master plan and grid code. However, Prof Eberhard says that the pace of creating the power pool is slow and the countries risk not achieving this dream. "It takes time to negotiate and this should begin early," he adds.