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Siemens deal on our decrepit electricity infrastructure

By Luke Onyekakeyah
09 June 2020   |   4:02 am
From all indications, the crux of the Siemens deal with the Federal Government is to modernise the electricity infrastructure, specifically the decrepit national grid.

From all indications, the crux of the Siemens deal with the Federal Government is to modernise the electricity infrastructure, specifically the decrepit national grid. Arguably, among other things, all the promises made since 1999 by different administrations to boost power supply have been frustrated by the old and dilapidated national power grid; and so, there is no way out, not until this issue is rectified.

Consequently, the move to deal with this critical issue by the Buhari administration is a step in the right direction if only the deal would be pursued to its logical conclusion, considering that Buhari has three years to go. An agreement was signed with the German energy giant in July 2019, to rehabilitate and then expand the country’s electricity grid, which suffers from regular power outages. For me, the decrepit grid is at the centre of the power crisis.

All over the place, there are rusted and exposed transformers at every nook and cranny of our townscape. There are electric cables dangling precariously over peoples’ heads on the streets, market places and homes. A number of innocent Nigerians have been electrocuted by live electric cables that snapped and fell on them on the street or on their homes/shops. Fallen and broken electric poles and cables are commonplace.

The electric poles used in Nigeria appear to be the lowest quality, both the wooden and concrete poles easily collapse with the least impact. I get the impression that these infrastructures were not meant to last long. They are unlike the strong steel electric poles I find in other countries. It is noteworthy that there is no other country where electricity infrastructure is so exposed like in Nigeria. This state of affairs has been with us for decades showing that the problem didn’t start today.

For the country to deliver on whatever amount of energy she wants there is need to evolve a more durable and trustworthy electricity infrastructure. Our existing cobweb-like electricity transmission and distribution lines are vulnerable and easily vandalised and damaged.

It is one thing to generate power but it is another thing to transmit and distribute it effectively to reach the final consumers. Nigeria reportedly has more than 13,000 of installed electricity generation capacity but only 7,500 megawats (MW) is available and less than 4,000 MW is released to the grid daily.

If Nigeria sincerely wants to break off from the present embarrassing electric power generation and distribution situation, then the infrastructure should be redesigned to a modern standard. The expectation is that Siemens will modernize the existing archaic network before enlarging it to produce and distribute 25,000MW.

There is no reason to believe that the existing infrastructure was designed to carry more than 6,000MW of electricity. This is because since independence, Nigeria has not had 6,000MW of electricity at any given time. Over the years, the country has been running on less than 4,000 MW of electricity.

At best of times, there was about 3,500MW but the worst times record less than 800MW of electricity for the entire country! How can the poorly designed and inferior electricity infrastructure carry the heavy power output that this country requires for industrialization? The solution, to start with is in the electricity infrastructure.

When you go to other countries that have regular power supply, you observe that most of the electricity infrastructures are buried underground. I have lived in Kenya, an under-developed country like Nigeria but which has more improved and reliable power supply system. I didn’t observe electric transformers located at every nook and cranny of the place. I didn’t see dangling electric cables hanging precariously over peoples’ heads and posing danger. In the developed countries of Europe and America, among others, electricity distribution cables are hardly visible. They are buried underground and the network mapped for easy referencing in case of repairs.

Not long ago, I visited Ghana on an assignment and had the opportunity to ask questions on the improved electricity situation in that country. I was actually commending the government of the former president Jerry Rawlings, during whose tenure Ghana achieved a 12-month uninterrupted power supply. But my hosts told me that Rawlings wasn’t really the brain behind the power improvement in Ghana. They said that the power supply framework in Ghana was a master plan developed by Ghana’s first president, Dr. Kwame Nkurumah.

According to them, what Rawlings did was to implement the plan that has been there since Ghana’s independence in 1958. To buttress the point, I was shown a document showing the electricity grid system prepared by the Nkurumah government. The grid shows the development of electricity from Southern Ghana towards the north. I was shown the lines that have been completed and those that were still being implemented, which are mainly in Northern Ghana. What it means is that the Ghanaian authorities are not just implementing a haphazard electricity plan but a well-articulated framework at all times. All that is needed is a responsive government to implement the plan without altering it for selfish reasons. That was what Rawlings did.

My Ghana experiences convinced me that Nigeria has no power supply framework and that explains why things are the way they are in the sector. Unfortunately, our founding fathers failed to develop such a solid framework for electricity development. And, because there is no such established framework in Nigeria, I concluded that the problems we face are fundamental. The development of electricity in this country has been under the whims and caprices of the successive governments. Each government more or less pursues its own disjointed agenda that eventually comes to naught once that government leaves office. The surprising thing is that no government has thought it wise to develop a durable framework based on global best practice. The truth is that as a nation, we are near sixty years behind in the development of electricity. The rest of the world has moved to advanced electricity technology but we have not started.

The problem of poor infrastructure is further compounded by lack of maintenance. Today in Nigeria, there is general decay of infrastructural facilities. The roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and universities are dilapidated. The petroleum pipelines that were laid across the country to distribute fuel to the major towns and cities in the country were left un-maintained. The only means available for distributing fuel to all parts of the country is petrol tankers plying dilapidated roads. The refineries are poorly maintained. There is hardly any infrastructure in the country that is being properly maintained.

The three major dams at Kainji, Jebba and Shiroro are operating far below capacity due to poor maintenance. Electric transformers, metres and other ancillary components are in decadent state. The metres used in the country are archaic. A visit to peoples’ homes and offices shows that they’re eyesore.

If electricity were generated without being transmitted, it serves no purpose. The situation could be likened to a farmer who produces crops with no road to move them to the market for sale; the produce won’t serve any economic purpose. As a matter of fact, the farmer would have wasted his time.

In the same vein, if electricity is generated without the required infrastructures to distribute it, the investment would be a waste. That is why it is absolutely necessary to address the issue of dilapidated electricity infrastructure alongside the move to increase power generation such that nothing would hamper the transmission and distribution of the power. Except this is done, the whole effort would be wasted. I want to also point out that almost half of the electricity generated in this country is unaccounted for because of the poor infrastructure.

I had earlier discussed the need to diversify our sources of power supply as the only way to guarantee a minimal target of 30,000MW. That would also guarantee regular and uninterrupted power supply and provide the threshold for industrial take off. I have observed that on many occasions when there is slight improvement of power supply, many streets and homes are cut off because of faulty transformers, vandlised distribution cables and indiscriminate disconnection of lines.

These things happen because the electricity infrastructure is vulnerable. As such, it is easily tampered with or vandalised. There is no way an infrastructure that is so exposed could provide a superhighway for transmitting any reasonable amount of electric energy.

Regrettably, the issue of electricity has become a thorn on the flesh of Nigeria. While effort is being made to increase power generation, there should be a corresponding effort to re-design the electricity network into a modern electricity infrastructure.

The existing sub-standard system should be re-configured and modernised. This is the only way an enduring electricity system that would form the basis for industrialization could be possible. That system would be able to withstand future unforeseen storms that may arise.