By Denis Jjuuko
As 2017 was drawing to a close, Kampala and most parts of the country became very hot. And there were lots of complaints about the weather. Some people invoked God and others quickly cited climate change. December is a hot month and usually January and February are some of the hottest months in most parts of Uganda.
Anyway, the rain eventually came down on New Year’s Eve, at least in Kampala. And of course most parts of Kampala were plunged into darkness. The rain, which is the major source of our electricity as we mainly depend on hydro-power, is also the biggest source of its supply disruptions. Electric poles and wires sometimes fall down during the downpour.
Before the normal supply of electricity was disrupted in some parts of Kampala, people had been engaged in a debate on the cost of electricity on social media and other platforms. The Electricity Regulation Agency (ERA) had decided to increase the cost of electricity by about 33 shillings starting on January 1, 2018. The domestic unit will now cost Shs718.9. The ERA always claims that the main reasons for such increments is a result of fluctuations in the US dollar exchange rates. Though of course the government has been in negotiations with Bujagali Energy Limited (BEL) on their contractual obligations to generate power. The East African newspaper (owned by the same owner as BEL) has reported that whatever BEL asked for including extending their contract period, the government agreed to it. So brace yourself for more expensive electricity.
There are less than 1.5million customers on the national electricity grid with Umeme being the major distributor (about 1,015,000 customers). The majority of these 1.5 million customers are domestic users who actually don’t need to depend on hydro electricity for their daily needs. Of all the power produced in Uganda, domestic users take only 30% with the rest going to manufacturers and businesses. Yet a plant like the Roofings one at Namanve needs about 45mw — almost what a single turbine produces at Bujagali.
As we complained of the heat, the power disruptions due to rainfall, and the increment in the electricity tariff, I asked myself whether the majority of domestic users actually need hydropower. The truth is they don’t. Yet a lot of money is spent on ensuring there is electricity everywhere in the country. Districts aside, electricity is the most demanded item at political rallies by people who can’t afford it. It is very common to find electric poles in villages running in people’s compounds and yet they are not connected to it. Sometimes the cost of wiring a house is much more than the house to be connected is worth.
Sometime back, electricity was extended to my grandparents’ home at the insistence of a powerful area Member of Parliament because he feared some of my relatives may run for his office. The electric lines, which run for about three kilometres ended in my grannies’ courtyard. My relatives never bothered to connect to it because they had solar and didn’t see the need for it. Whenever there were functions at granny’s, the politician would boast of how he had ‘brought’ electricity to them.
On that three-kilometer stretch, very few houses have been connected to it about 10 years since the lines were installed. They are happy about electricity in their village but they can’t afford it. They also didn’t need it. In most homes, electricity is only used for lighting, charging phones, watching TV and ironing clothes. The rural folks usually iron only once a week when they are going to church. So should the country continue to pay a lot of money extending electricity to people who don’t need and obviously can’t afford it?
Uganda is located on the equator, which guarantees sunshine throughout the year. It is cheaper for people to use solar for their domestic needs than hydropower that we are gladly extending. People always cite the initial cost of solar power installation yet it is the same or even cheaper than wiring your house. Once you install solar power, you only need to periodically maintain the system so that it doesn’t breakdown. This is something else people complain about — solar breakdowns. This is because we don’t have a culture of maintenance, we prefer to repair or replace. And of course there might be lots of cheap fake solar power products on the market, which don’t last. I believe if you install genuine solar power units and maintain them as recommended they can last for many years. And you won’t have to pay monthly or weekly bills. The country then can concentrate on providing power to those who need it like manufacturers and businesses, which may reduce their unit costs, make them more profitable and employ more Ugandans.
In fact, there are now solar tiles on the market. So instead of buying roof clay tiles or iron sheets, one can roof their house with solar tiles. This means that the owner kills two birds with one stone — a beautiful roof that is also the source of all your power needs. After installing a solar power roof, one will need a power wall which can give you power for a week. This is important because a lot of Ugandans think that solar power needs a lot of sunshine to work. If Europe and North America are going solar, why not us who are on the equator? Companies like Tesla are already making these units and they are very powerful. Remember, we don’t use as much electricity at our homes as those in America. In Uganda, you don’t even need a fridge in your home. You can buy fresh stuff from the market everyday.
And if we don’t ask politicians for electricity which we can’t afford all the time and ask them for solar, the costs of solar will come down. The business people who need electricity will have it at a lower rate than they do today, which will create jobs and grow the economy. The country won’t have to install white elephants like the line going to my grandparents’ home. Only areas that have economically grown and where genuine power demand is high will then need to be connected to the national grid.
The author is a media consultant and businessman. email@example.com
* Internet photo of solar roof tiles