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An Over-View of NPA and the Energy Sector in Sierra Leone:A Chequered History?
Posted by on Jun 16, 2009, 06:51

The energy sector in Sierra Leone spearheaded by the National Power Authority (NPA) has had a long chequered history, from the days of the Electricity Company to the Authority it is now.  Management has changed with different policy approaches all intended to enhance the advancement of both industry and personnel to higher heights.  To date, however, the electricity sector is still “groping” in darkness.  The industry’s success rate is still measured by how many hours of light is made available to the city and its environs and the none-starter attempts to provide energy in the vast areas of these combined most populated regions of the country – formally the “protectorate” then “Provinces”, and now simply referred to as the regions.


When the 1982 Electricity Act was conceived and promulgated through the Sierra Leone’s House of Representatives in the same year, a qualified Engineer was thought to be the right and proper person to hold the position of General Manager NPA.  There could have been several reasons for this, which would certainly have implied some years of experience in a power utility of comparable nature in Sierra Leone or else where.  Indeed over the years in the history of this power utility in the country, whenever there was a combination of an Engineer holding the position of Minister and General Manager simultaneously, the industry’s performance in both management and technical output was phenomenal.

Indeed, in the periods in which the likes of Mr. Alex Browne an Engineer, formally General Manager of GUMA Water Company, and later appointed Minister of Energy and Power, and Mr. S.A.E Taylor-Lewis also an Engineer former Professional Head, Ministry of Works and subsequently appointed Minister of Energy and Power.  The electricity sector production was always satisfactory and became the springboard of advancement in other areas of human endeavour in the country.


It has long been established that among the most important necessity to improve living standards of the life of the people of any country, developed or developing, Sierra Leone not exempted, electricity provision is at the very cornerstone of sustainable growth, be it through the economy or agriculture, to name a few, that would reflect creditably on the human development index. For many years now Ministers of Energy and Power have been chosen from just any one because it is said they deal mainly with policy formulation and leave the day-to-day implementation to an Engineer as General Manager of the NPA – which is cursorily observed by a Board of Directors.  But this notwithstanding, NPA has still not achieved the turn around anticipated. 


Over a year or so ago, a lay Minister without knowledge or qualification in Electrical Engineering was appointed Minister together with a lay Acting General Manager to manage the Electricity Industry, with what has now turned to be a gullible Board of Directors.  This combination has produced no significant sustainable change in the industry’s performance.  In other words the nation is still waiting for electricity to provide light and for other purposes.  The Kingtom Power Station is at present virtually at a stand still except for the Global Trading Group (an Independent Power Producer IPP) that is operating machines and generating electricity of about 15 mega watts.  


Once again after a long spell, the Government in its infinite wisdom has appointed a professional and qualified Engineer to the Position of Minister for the combined electrical and water sectors of the industry.  With this newly appointed Minister, a former Professor at the University of Sierra Leone injecting new ideas into both Management and technical expertise at NPA, it would only be fair that he is not thwarted in his strides by an inept Board of Directors and an Acting General Manager who neither has the qualification to hold that post nor the administrative ability to manage such an entity.  Indeed the current Acting General Manager had a previous dismal managerial record in his last employment in Pennsylvania gives serious grounds for concern as to his suitability for the post of General Manager NPA or even acting as such.  This was carried in an article in several of the local newspapers including the New Vision Newspaper of August 20th 2008 at page 8 entitled “LEAVE ENGINEERS ALONE……………” That article among many salient matters raised, analyzed and discussed as stated in the meddle of the 4th Column, quote “…from the foregone Dr……. should have been shown the door as he was in 2003 at the Pennsylvania Power Utility where as reported in the Salone Times Newspaper aforesaid, he was fired from his position as Economist due to, amongst others, - falsification of records and timesheets, lack of management ability, poor work performance……..” unquote, it was also stated that Dr. ………… contested the grounds for his dismissal and lost both in the lower court and the appeal court”.


The NPA Act of 1982 as amended calls for a qualified Engineer to hold the post of General Manager of the Authority, which qualification the Dr…. does not have, nor indeed has he proven administrative ability, prowess and capacity.

On one occasion not too long passed, when there was a total breakdown of the Thermal Machines at the Kingtom Power Plant, both the General Manager and the Deputy, put on overalls, sat on the machine, discovered the faults and rectified them and got the plant working again.  Such was the practical skill and engineering knowledge demonstrated by the two Managers.  This sort of situation could well have been envisaged by those who drafted and promulgated the NPA Act in place as necessarily dictated then as it certainly does today.


The need therefore to maintain the situation where both Minister and General Manager and Deputy at NPA are qualified, experienced Engineers should be emphasized as appropriate in all the circumstances surrounding the electricity sector at present.  Today however, the renamed Ministry of Energy and Water Resources is particularly welcome because the technology enabling the use of water for the production of energy is well established.  But of course the type of scheme is determined by the characteristics of the river in terms of its flow, head and the possibilities of dam storage. Such schemes which are run-off-the-river systems lend themselves well to small rural communities for decentralized applications and are becoming increasingly attractive to donors who earlier were more attracted to small and large hydro schemes for grid connections as is possibly envisaged in due course when Bumbuna becomes operational and other mini-hydros spring up like the one at Dodo in the Kenema District.


Water and energy are inextricably linked.  Climate change has led to an intensification of the global hydrological cycle and has had major impacts on regional water resources.  A change in the volume and distribution of water affects both ground and surface water supply for domestic and individual uses, like hydro power generation etc.  Changes in the total amount of precipitation and its frequency and intensity directly affect the magnitude and timing of run off and the intensity of floods and drought.  This situation however is prevalent in Sierra Leone except that there comes occasion when there is acute shortage of drinking water and for other domestic uses.


Sierra Leone is blessed with many rivers with a strong potential for hydro schemes.  To date, about twenty-seven such sites have been mapped and several of them are economically exploitable.  As a whole, Sierra Leone like other African Nations has a struggling energy sector that is reflective of the general economic status.  The level of poverty and spectrum of political performance impacts significantly on access to electricity and the efficiency of operations of the sector that impinged on sustainable development.  Over centralization of development strategies in the city at the near exclusion of the rural communities has it own influence in the general performances indicators that characterize Sierra Leone status, like most other African Nations status in the energy market.  Further more, demands such as health, family sustainers, access to education, proper road network, transportation, general welfare and in many instances and to some extent, defense, compete for the meager economic resources available for social development and adds their own dimension to the prospects for improving the energy sector in Sierra Leone like many other developing and non-industrialized countries.


The cost of electricity production with consequent high tariffs to the consumers, coupled with high transmission and distribution losses, poor macroeconomic and investment climate in Sierra Leone are some of the militating factors that have stifled access and rendered the industry non-competitive with more traditional means of energy production and their attendant degradation of the environment and health implications.


Looking back, between 1960 and 1995, Sierra Leone’s total installed and operated electricity generating capacity was about 42 MW.  This constituted about 85% thermal plants located all over the country and 15% hydro-electric power plants. Destruction caused during the ten- year- rebel war and the consequent poor performance of this national utility (NPA) almost all the regional thermal plants are either beyond economic repairs or completely destroyed.  Up to recently, the installed and operating capacity excluding auto-producer was 41.13MW of which 37.74MW was located in Freetown and the rest in Bo and Moyamba.


Estimated hydro potential of the entire country is around 1,513MW scattered in about 27 sites.  However, nearly all of these are suffering from enormous flow variations between the wet and dry seasons.  Out of the 27 sites only 2 are deemed to provide hydropower at attractive costs with annual flow regulation.    Yiben II, Bikongor III Kambatibo, betmai III, Yiben I and Bumbuna falls are the most attractive in terms of generation cost.  The construction of Yiben I is estimated at US$72 million, including the cost of all civil structures required for a power plant with up to three turbines. Up to date, Sierra Leone has built two Hydro-electric plants.  They include the 2.4 MW Guma Plant installed in 1967 in the Western Area, which has been out of service since 1982 due to electrical and mechanical damages.  The other existing operating hydro power plant is the 4MW run-off-the river type with a small reservoir.  This is located in the Eastern Region about 43 miles (69km) from the Headquarter town of Kenema.  Operated and managed by the Bo, Kenema Power Service (BKPS) consortium through a regional committee appointed by Government and should report to Board of Directors of NPA. The Township of Bo and Kenema and some surrounding villages have benefited from sprinklings of electricity made available on a more regular basis than in Freetown. 


Currently the Bumbuna Hydro-electric power which has been under construction since 1990 is nearing completion.  The total cost of the scheme will include the cost of 161KV single circuit transmission line to the Western area.  This project has been protracted and further compounded by political upheavals in the country.  Recent estimates suggest that there will be 47MW installed capacity in the first phase, the source of generation of which is the Rokel Seli River.  Transmission lines will pass through towns including Binkolo, Makeni, Lunsar, Masiaka and Waterloo, with substation at Kingtom in Freetown which has already been completed and will be used eventually for distribution.


But it is estimated that a total of 176 houses will be demolished that are likely to lie beneath the High tension transmission lines at a colossal cost yet to be determined.   Whether a bye-pass route could not have been found for the transmission lines through undisturbed vegetation etc is a question to be actively considered, if only to avoid undesirable social impact on the lives of citizens in the affected areas.


The chequered history of NPA in the operation of the Electrical and water sectors in Sierra Leone calls for a robust approach to streamline the industry to a manageable capacity.  Lay and unqualified managers without the relevant engineering skills would quite often be tempted to appoint equally unqualified personnel in highly sensitive positions.  A case in point is the recent appointment of a pupil Engineer to the position of Generation Manager at the Kingtom power plant.  This no doubt may account for the down turn in generation even from the Global Trading Company Machines (an IPP) from 15 to 8 MW managed under the supervision of the new Generation Manager.


This press believes and advocates for the development of hydropower and grid expansion as the way forward to meet the electricity needs of not only Freetown, but all the major towns and cities in the country.  It is also important that Government actively undertakes the expansion of the grid to ensure that any manufacturing industry and or commercial ventures undertaken are encourage to locate/relocate outside the capital of Freetown.  This will help increase the load factor in other regions thereby making expansion more attractive and viable.  Invariably, it is cheaper to use electricity supplied by the grid which will make it possible for attendant overheads not to be passed on to the customer.


There are currently vast hydro potentials in Sierra Leone which must be exploited taking cognizance of the capacities available for the provision of electricity in rural areas.  For rural electrification in Sierra Leone, other hydro schemes must be investigated.  Rural communities need no longer to continue to be marginalized and deprived of the basic social amenities taken for granted by their urban counterparts.  They also have a right to a better standard of life.  It must be noted that they provide the bulk of the nations wealth, though sadly the returns obtained are highly disproportionate to their contribution to the nations ‘kitty’ and too meager to have a substantial impact on their lives. Policy makers must address such imbalances and urgent provision must be made available for improving the living conditions of these communities, constituting about 74% of the nation’s population. 


This calls for new thinking and strategies and most importantly, financial and political commitment for the realization of programmes aimed at providing greater access to electricity nation-wide, which is one of the steps towards poverty alleviation and increased equity for growth.  Creating a decentralized energy system that provides means of decentralized electricity distribution can enhance reliability of electricity distribution and access.  This system can be the way forward in realizing the provision of greater access to electricity and other energy related activities in the rural communities. Local participation (cooperatives) should be encouraged in the financing, construction and operations of mini-hydro projects as this can provide sustainable source of energy to the village communities.  Some pre-investment would be required towards training of local personnel.


The formation of cooperatives both for power generating capacities and user communities should be encouraged, as this will foster local participations and sense of ownership.  Some of the benefits of local participation shall include reduction of high administrative costs e.g. for meter reading and billing etc.; generation of local industries and other economic activities.  Here micro-credit schemes could be introduced by NGOs to promote rural investment. No over-view of an industry of this type would be complete without reference to its man power structure.  It should be admitted by all concerned, that for many years now the electricity sector especially in Freetown has been over-manned.  Not too long ago, it was estimated that about 265 personnel would rightly be considered surplus to requirement. To ensure the authority begins to financially break even “dead-wood” must be removed to enable the industry to show a measure of financial success capable of attracting privatization in whole or in part.

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