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Stitching rugged power supply belt

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CHAKWERA—Identify those that are putting roadblocks

Uncharacteristic. The effects of what has for so long been regarded as a local problem in Malawi, namely power outages, has been felt in Copenhagen, some 11,561.4 kilometres away from Malawi.

There, in Copenhagen, Denmark, Europe, the Copenhagen Consensus Centre has put Malawi’s problems with power outages in context.

It claims, in an article titled ‘Malawi Priorities: Utilities’, thus: “Blackouts, shortages and unreliable access to electricity are a challenge for Malawi’s businesses. Malawian firms experience approximately 7.4 outages per month, with each outage lasting 3.6 hours. Around half of Malawian firms supplement their energy with costly diesel generators. The rest opt into low-productive enterprises that do not require stable electricity or suffer large revenue losses. The coping cost for businesses is estimated at K1,557 ($2.09) per kilowatt-hour of unsupplied grid electricity.

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“An independent evaluation of Escom [Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi] showed an insufficient (and in some areas, deficient) corporate governance and management practices as principal causes of its weakened financial position and frequent power outages. The evaluation results, plus evidence from around the world of the impacts of turnaround efforts in electricity and other utilities, motivate a technical assistance programme.”

While interventions, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact that ran for five years between 2013 and 2018 are lauded for contributing to infrastructure improvements, including a marked reduction in technical losses, the Copenhagen centre indicates that an independent evaluation of the MCC Compact1 found that the sustainability of the supported improvements could not be guaranteed.

The evaluation noted, for instance, that the financial position of Escom had declined in recent years, there had been significant issues in Escom operations, with the board of directors for Escom faulted for not being sufficiently independent of political authorities.

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The other challenge evaluators identified is that, despite significant increases in tariffs, they [tariffs] are still below full cost recovery levels, thereby frustrating Escom such as routine maintenance which Escom undertakes from time to time.

“Other operational issues include stock-outs, procurement maintenance calendars not being maintained and lack of knowledge of adaptation strategies to mitigate climatic changes, particularly those affecting the Shire River, as examples of management issues leading to technical losses.

“As a result, electricity service suffers from substantial blackouts. Furthermore, according to the 2018 Doing Business Report, procedures, time, cost to get connected to the electrical grid, the reliability of electricity supply and the transparency of tariffs in Malawi are ranked extremely low (169th out of 190 countries) and below the sub-Saharan African average,” the report reads.

Of late, according to Escom Chief Executive Officer Kamkwamba Kumwenda, vandalism of Escom property such as transformers has become another thorn in its flesh.

Just last month, there was a blackout-inducing system failure that was attributed to the vandalism of an Escom conductors on the Nkula A to Blantyre 66 Kilovolts overhead line.

“The initial suspicion is that the fault was induced in order to steal the conductor,” he said.

Kumwenda indicated that the corporation needs about 600 transformers to replace those lost to vandalism.

According to Energy Minister Ibrahim Matola, vandalism has become disruptive to power supply works in the country, such that there is a need to join hands to ensure that power suppliers are not distracted from their cause, namely supplying power with unnecessary interruptions while connecting thousands of other customers that are yet to get hooked up into the national grid.

“Power is a prerequisite for development; as such, we have to join hands in addressing the problem of vandalism while embracing those [independent power suppliers] that may need to jon the task of energy generation,” he said.

Energy expert Maxon Chitawo indicated that, for the country to address power supply problems once and for all, the Electricity Generation Company (Egenco) should be capacitated.

He said Egenco can borrow a leaf from JCM, which has, in the past two years, ensured that the country has 80 more megawatts of solar-generated power.

On June 6 this year, President Lazarus Chakwera commissioned a JCM Solar Power plant at Golomoti in Dedza District, meaning that the national grid will have 20 megawatts more.

He, however, chided public workers who have been frustrating efforts of independent power producers.

“Reports of independent power producers being frustrated, or not being assisted, in their quest to explore power purchase agreements with our government leave a lot to be desired.

“These matters were already settled by law and the ministry must identify who in these institutions is causing roadblocks to implementation of settled policy and see to it that their resistance is thwarted,” Chakwera said.

Deputy British High Commissioner to Malawi David Pert also urged the government to clarify the issue of independent power buyer, pointing out that some investors might wish to produce and sell the power themselves.

JCM Power Chief Executive Officer Christian Wray said the continuous improvement of the energy situation in Malawi is of critical importance to the economic development of the country.

“This project – a utility-scale solar and battery project– is the first of its kind in Malawi and the largest of its kind across Sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

In November last year, Chakwera commissioned a 60 megawatts JCM plant in Nkhotakota District.

This means, as Chitawo claimed, JCM— which is an international independent power producer that is headquartered in Toronto, Canada, but with operations and projects under development across Sub- Saharan Africa and South Asia— has been complementing the government’s power generation efforts.

Fortunately, Egenco seems to be up to the task, with its spokesperson Moses Gwaza indicating, among other things, that the company has started fixing Tedzani III, where about 12mw would be added to the national grid.

“Egenco is working on diesel generators which will add another 12 megawatts to the national grid,” he said.

Electricity blackouts reached a crescendo in January this year following destruction of some structures at Kapichira Power Station in Chikwawa District.

“Following this, we are hopeful that, by the end of July this year, the company will restore another 25 megawatts to the national grid,” Gwaza said, adding that this would reduce the longevity of electricity blackouts as, on the other hand, they will be fixing Kapichira Power Station in Chikwawa.

He said experts from Korea and the United States have started arriving in the country to start fixing the Kapichira plant.

“There are plans that we, as Egenco, are working on to make sure that the company should not only rely on generating electricity from Shire River but also other sources,” he said.

Last month, the private sector freed 23mw of electricity through a partnership with the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) to ease the pressure of shortage of power supply during peak periods.

In return, Escom offers the partner companies a tariff incentive.

However, Consumers Association of Malawi Executive Director John Kapito is not convinced with measures being put in place to address power supply challenges.

He said consumers’ rights are being violated but Malawians seem to be adapting to the “pain” instead of doing the needful.

“It is worrisome that Malawians are quite on the matter. We have noted less reaction to the problem apart from pressure on social media. We need to make sure we claim our rights as a consumer to have all authorities work towards ending the problem,” he said.

There lies the challenge; whether to get energy or engage in the energy supping activity of demonstrations.

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