Why Sierra Leone's energy crisis just about got worse

The Bumbuna hydro dam is struggling to keep up with Sierra Leone's energy needs. PHOTO | www.jouleafrica.com 

Sierra Leone is experiencing its worst energy crisis since electricity was restored to its Freetown capital in 2007 following the end of the 1991-2002 civil war.

The main Bumbuna Hydroelectric Power plant has been declared half dead, with Energy minister Olu Niyu Robin Coker last Thursday admitting that only one of the 30-year old plant`s two turbines was functioning.

The revelation helped shed light on months of unexplained and frequent interruptions that have only worsened recently, and which could hit rock bottom with the plant set to shut for maintenance.

Situated 200 km north of the capital, Bumbuna provides 50MW of the total 96MW of electricity generated nationwide. It was inaugurated in 2009 after over 25 years in abandonment. Work on it had started in the 1970s but was halted in the 1990s due to the war.

Until 2009 Sierra Leone could only boast of less than 15MW of electricity, supplied by a dilapidated thermal plant whose condition deteriorated during the war.

Roughly five per cent of the population at the time, mostly within Freetown and environs, had access to power, according to the World Bank.

For the greater majority, those who could afford settled for small Indian-imported ‘Tiger’ generators, dubbed ‘Kabbah Tiger’, after then President Ahmed Tijan Kabbah.

When he took over in 2007, President Ernest Bai Koroma restored electricity to Freetown within 100 days of his inauguration, fulfilling a crucial campaign promise.

Bigger problem

This was significantly improved upon with the completion of Bumbuna, on a budget of $327 million.

However, an expanding economy coupled with increasing mining activities meant more energy generation. Sustenance of supply has proved difficult, and the problem is compounded by deterioration of existing transmission and distribution infrastructure.

In its present form, Bumbuna`s generation capacity has reduced to 10MW.

When supplemented with the 26MW generated by irregular thermal plants at Kingtom (10 MW) and Blackhall Road (16.5MW) in Freetown, as well as a few mini-hydro projects elsewhere in the country [Bankasoka (2.0 MW), Charlotte (3.0 MW) and Makalie (170 kW)], the total capacity of the national grid amounts to 36MW.

Far less than this output reaches the final consumer because of the decrepit nature of the distribution and transmission mechanism.

But in spite of all this, said Energy minister Coker, the country is far from experiencing the pre-2007 levels.

"The period we are going through is a dark point, but we have never gotten less than 16MW as in pre-2007 levels,” he said, blaming the situation on “absolute technical and mechanical failure,” rather than human induced causes.

National debate

The last time Sierra Leone experienced similar energy crisis was a few months before the November polls, prompting a national debate about the myth surrounding Bumbuna.

Many still see it as a political ploy, a perception that heightened when electricity supply became relatively stable in the few weeks to the polls, only to slump back almost immediately after declaration of results.

The energy minister said Thursday the sector will need a 500 per cent upgrade within the next five years if it can stand the test of time in terms of demand.

The government, in May 2011, reached an agreement with US-based Joule Africa to undertake an expansion [Phase II] of the Bumbuna project which will see its capacity increased to 400MW.

This will cost $750m, and it is expected to be completed by 2017.

For the short term, the Energy ministry has set a power generation target of 218 MW in 2013, although no clear indication has been made on how this can be achieved.

But before all that worst times are yet to come as the plant is set to shut down in the next few months for maintenance.

This means zero electricity supply from the plant within that period.

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