The government of Ethiopia has invested 162 million dollars to address Addis Abeba’s unreliable power supply. Ethiopia Electric Utility, is taking measures to meet the ever growing electricity demand of 3.6 million or so city residents. Despite resolutions made by the government, the capital is experiencing increased blackouts, and the citizens are expressing their grievances about the recurrent power outages, writes BEHAILU AYELE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.
Yared Dinku, 31, provides photocopying, typing, printing and internet services at his stationery shop on Mauritius Street near Gofa Mazoria. His business is entirely dependent on electricity.
“I don’t have any backup power,” Yared says, “the electric supply is my only option.”
Residents and small business owners like him are exasperated by the electric outages and blackouts that have become all too familiar.
“The problem has persisted for the past three months. A few weeks ago I almost had to close down when the power went out for almost a week,” he says. “We always call [Ethiopian Electric Utility] to come and fix the problem. They arrive much later, and even after they reconnect the wires, it won’t stay on for long and the blackouts return.”
To solve the problem, the capital’s electric distribution system has been undergoing rehabilitation through the installation of 61 compact and 72 switching stations, 461 backup transformers and the establishment of 1,038km of new electric distribution lines in the last year.
The project has cost the government close to 162 million dollars.
The recent recurrent outages are not out of the ordinary for Melaku Taye, communications director at Ethiopian Electric Utility, the public enterprise mandated to construct and maintain the electric distribution networks.
“The recent outages are not unusual, but we are responding to demands with our full capacity,” he said. “The main problem is that the networks are old, and the distribution lines for our high-energy consuming commercial clients and residential customers are the same.”
Melaku insists that the existing cables are not able to carry the electric current supplied by Ethiopia Electric Power, the power generation entity. The electric utility is constructing and upgrading substations and has developed a master plan for Addis Abeba and its suburbs to address the growing electricity demands. The plan was developed at a cost of 3.5 million dollars and was completed three years ago.
To improve its systems, the utility company introduced an organisational and operational restructuring plan in May where new offices led by 11 deputy chief executives were established.
“We are planning to implement a more advanced technology that can trace and report power outages before customers call in,” said Melaku.
To cope with the intermittent power supply and interruptions, businesses such as Kirtas Advertising use generators.
“With the unreliable power supply and recurrent outages, we are obliged to rent generators for our daily activity at a cost of 1,200 Br a day,” said Yemane Mamo, marketing and innovation director at the advertising firm.
It is not just businesses that are negatively affected by the power shortage.
“On my way home from work, my biggest worry is whether there will be electricity when I get home. It is very frustrating,” says Dereje Moges, a 41-year-old who lives in Gofa Gabriel. “Most weekends, the power goes off for no less than three hours at a time.”
Dereje once called the utility company 12 times in a three-hour period.
“Everybody in my neighbourhood calls them,” he said. “They tell us to wait and that power will soon return.”
A survey made by the Ethiopia Electrification Program shows that 44pc of the calls that customers make are not picked up by the utility.
“We do have problems with customer service. We are planning to modernise our system and address more of the customers’ demands,” Melaku says. “The utility customer service is currently located in a department within Ethio telecom. The company plans to move it to its own premises.”
Customers believe that electric outages become worse during the rainy season, Keremet. This should have been managed ahead of time, according to Tigabu Atalo, an electrical engineer and power and energy consultant with over a decade of experience in the power sector.
“The reason behind the recent interruption is an unbalanced distribution of power, and a poor maintenance and procurement system,” he said. “The demand for electricity by the public has increased in recent years, yet the power transformers are old.”
As a permanent means of addressing the problem, experts suggest revitalising electrification.
“The utility should integrate into its systems smart technologies and rapidly implement ongoing pilot projects,” Tigabu says. “There needs to be as much attention given to distribution as power generation.”
Ethiopia currently has the capacity to generate 4,500mw of energy, while it has the potential to produce 45,000mw in hydropower, 10,000mw of geothermal and 1.3 million mw from wind power. Despite that, the national electric peak consumption is 2,500mw and minimum consumption is 700mw at any given time. Addis Abeba uses almost half the nation’s capacity at peak hours and 350mw at low consumption periods.
The Second Edition of the Growth & Transformational Plan projects to reach 90pc electricity coverage by 2020 in the country. Currently, less than a third of the population has access to electricity.
This ranks Ethiopia as having the second largest population without access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa, next to Nigeria.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, 600 million people live without electricity. Kenya is the leading country on the road to achieving universal electrification, according to Energy Progress Report.
Kenya’s government almost doubled the distribution of power within four years from just 27pc in 2013, when the country’s electrification campaign began in earnest. Kenya is expected to be among the first African countries to achieve universal access to electricity following Algeria, Mauritius and Seychelles.
In 2013, the government split the former Ethiopia Electric Power Corporation, previously known as Ethiopian Light & Power Authority, into two new entities: Ethiopian Electric Utility and Ethiopian Electric Power, with the former dealing with distribution and the latter providing generation. The government is also currently implementing a national electrification program with the support of the World Bank.
Last fiscal year, the World Bank pledged 375 million dollars to finance the introduction of electricity to nearly one million households and to strengthen the planning and implementation capacities of the utility company.
Through this fund, the Ethiopian government has set an ambitious plan to achieve universal electricity access by 2025 by reaching 65pc of the population through the electric grid system and the remaining 35pc through off-grid technologies such as solar power.
Despite their frustrations at the current state of affairs, business owners in Addis Abeba are hopeful.
“We have witnessed that there are installations of power lines and transformers. Perhaps these problems will soon be addressed,” said Yemane.
While addressing parliament back in June, Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed (PhD) promised to revolutionise the quality of service delivery in the infrastructure sector. He emphasized his administration’s readiness to respond to the demand by building quality service delivery through investigation and the eradication of the systemic challenges that have led to complaints of corruption and sabotage.
For Yared though, the plan to improve distribution and generation are moving at a snail’s pace.
“The problem has been here forever. Given past promises that did not bear much fruit, daily power outages are probably here to stay,” he tells Fortune.
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