Parsing Through National Power Woes: The Problem is Energy, Policy or Incompetent Management?

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This article aims to spark a spirited conversation on why power blackouts are the order of the day and that there is no silver bullet on the horizon to resolve them. In this discussion, we shall traverse several policy blunders carried out in the past and attempt to understand why politicians seek the easy way out of blaming energy managers for energy policy deficiencies.

Coursing through several complex energy issues, we shall propose remedial measures that will assist in addressing a myriad of the dilemmas the energy sector is embroiled in yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

We must remind ourselves that no nation on earth has been able to industrialize without cheap energy, and Tanzania will not defy this harsh reality. One way or the other, public energy policy must create an environment that enables cheap power, or we shall never be able to lift millions of Tanzanians out of poverty. If handled properly, the energy sector can generate millions of jobs and dwarf joblessness among our youths who aimlessly loiter on our streets instead of playing a pivotal role in building our nation.

What Went Wrong in The Energy Sector?

It is always easier to look for more straightforward solutions to perplexing problems. Still, in the energy sector, problems are legendary, not fomented today, but have been building for decades and decades.

All these problems can be traced to our collective thinking, which is inevitably wrong. Therefore, it is inflicting injustice to apportion our energy malnourishment to hapless individuals running the sector. Most industry appointments have done a massive disservice to the sector, but that is not the whole story.

Before the Ugandan war, power cuts were unheard of, but we strained our economy to wage war against our neighbour Uganda for whatever reasons. The economy was repurposed to support that effort, and most sectors, including the energy sector, suffered or underperformed.

Post Ugandan war, way back on July, 07th 1981, in Kigoma, Nyerere, during Worker’s Day, vowed not to bow down to the Bretton Woods institutions’ counselling who were pressuring him to initiate economic reforms, indicating all was not well after the war. We shall not stray our focus on what was at stake in those Western reforms so that we will skip them.

But what was significant was that the nation was sliding into economic difficulties, and the allocation of resources was also facing some tough choices. The energy sector became one of the sectors that had suffered immeasurably.

During the 1970s, fossil global price shocks accelerated our energy pain. From power rationing to lack of fuel to power, our transportation service became a tolerable humdrum. The first oil shocks began somewhere around October 1973. They ended in January 1974 as significant oil countries imposed an embargo against the US for meddling in the Israel-Palestinian conflict after the Nixon administration decided to give Israel $2.2 Billion.

What is relevant here is that it was before the Ugandan war and despite oil prices per barrel shooting from $ 2.90 to 11.65 $ US dollars. Our energy sector braved those global shocks despite a price jump of 4.1 times per barrel during the one year that was in consideration.

The global inflation and the devaluation of the US dollar led oil-producing countries to dump the US dollar and apply gold as a medium of exchange. The price of gold and oil prices soared disproportionately. The trend of oil prices has kept rising for various reasons, rendering our energy sector, which was too dependent on fuels to power generators, just a festering boil in the neck.

We were extricating ourselves from overdependence on fuels to generate power. Having seen the global oil prices rise and there was no letup, new thinking convinced us to find ways to reduce our over-dependence on black gold. Such efforts led us to invest heavily in hydroelectric damming upon our perennial rivers to generate power.

These solutions temporarily relieved us from over-dependence on external shocks beyond our control but introduced new problems that were not foreseen.

Centralization of Energy Solution Did Us More Harm Than Good

While we were right to free ourselves from external shocks that were beyond our ability and were savvy enough to coin flimsy excuses like….”haya matatizo ya umeme yako nje ya uwezo wetu.” we were wrong to accept wholesale energy solutions from overseas without local input.

Damming of our perennial rivers ought to have been considered a stopgap, but we erroneously adopted them as our panacea to our energy hunger. As a result, lack of maintenance reduced energy production to a mere third of the installed capacity! Over the years, poor maintenance, increased energy demand and low levels of investment in the sector joined forces to deprive us of the energy we needed.

And blackouts became an order of the day, with our clueless politicians pouring petrol on the problem by appointing laypeople to run this professional sector. Energy problems kept growing, and the political class engaged in blame games without making a concerted effort to analyze the issues and suggest optimal solutions.

More significant is that damming solutions failed to appreciate how haphazardly our soil conservation, irrigation, and conflicting water demands were. Poor soil conservation methods have led to soil erosion that reduces the adequate depth of the dams needed to generate power.

Our hydroelectric dams have become collection points of alluvial sediments and mud, complicating our quest to wriggle ourselves out of global external factors. Efforts to clean the barriers have been rebuffed by allegations of bribery and corruption, leaving our dams in a sorry state of disrepair and negligence.

There has been talk of splitting TANESCO into three companies because it was deemed too unwieldy and structurally incompetent to address and resolve the endemic problems confronting her. Still, those daring efforts were quietly shelved for political considerations beyond the scope of this discussion.

The TANESCO internal reforms aimed to specialize in three significant activities: power generation, transportation, and disposal. So, ideally, three companies were to be formed that would deal with one of the chief activities aforementioned. Administrative costs were often raised to shoot down this balloon, among others.

REA (Rural Energy Agency) was created to deal with rural energy demands, but it was in her legislation that the objectives were distorted. REA is now TANESCO’s rival, duplicating what is wrong with TANESCO, which should not have been the case.

Forging Our Energy Future Ahead

Decentralization energy policies will solve most of the power problems we are experiencing. National Grid should act as a standby solution for small energy users and should be a preserve for significant power users.

Small power users should be encouraged to generate power for their consumption and should also be able to sell to TANESCO. Under this policy recommendation, small-scale users should be getting payments from TANESCO instead of paying her. This strategy has been successfully applied in California and is working well.

As we decentralize power generation, investment from small-scale users will wax strong, reducing our toiling to fund massive projects marred with over-invoicing through Power Purchase Agreements (PPA), adding more miseries to power users.

The second solution is to continue liaising with Russia, which has expressed a keen interest in helping Africa acquire cheaper nuclear technology and power. In this arrangement, long-term loans of shallow interest can be negotiated.

Also read Tanesco Catch-22 Situation: Incompetence, Sabotage or Poor Planning?

Third, we should stop placing all our eggs in one basket of hydroelectric dams as if we are oblivious to the challenges we have already experienced! An axiomatic wisdom that says  “garbage in is garbage out” should have jolted us over this long time ago. Every day we hear of damming plans and investments, we keep asking ourselves, do we ever learn?

Imagine if today we would have any power issues to rock our little boat had we forgone the Nyerere Hydroelectric power plant and invested in natural gas generators at Songo Songo. Today, we would have generated more than the 2.1 Megawatts designed to be generated at Nyerere dam. Our priorities are usually misplaced because some policymakers typically angle a big cut for themselves that blinds and distorts their wisdom, hurting national interest.

REA legislation should stop it from overlapping what TANESCO is doing. No more investment in the National Grid, and she should channel her resources into renewable energy. Solutions should be highly decentralized. REA should cease immediately from dealing with contractors and deal with communities. Renewable, decentralized solutions empower a family to improve their lot while contractual excess abounds in corruption, helping nobody but bureaucrats and contractors.

The government should issue tax exemptions to renewable parts and equipment. Banks should be encouraged to loan small-scale renewable energy producers.

Energy is overtaxed, and all taxes for REA and EWURA ought to be abolished, and the VAT generated in the energy sector should be used to fund both of them.

Solutions to solve our energy thirst must always be multi-pronged, refusing to repeat the problems we experienced during global oil shocks that had exposed our soft underbelly. Whether natural gas, coal, nuclear, renewable energy or the existing damming solutions, we ought to have a holistic approach, or we shall always exacerbate our power woes by accusing energy practitioners of sabotage. The issues have little to do with them beyond the intentionally misplaced workforce.

With the pace of technological evolution that empowers a small-scale energy producer, TANESCO and REA’s existence and relevance are very much in the air, to our collective glee.

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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