By Doreen Namara
On Friday April 9, 2021 Daily Monitor reported that UMEME loses Shs9bn to power theft in Jinja sub region between January and March and such a loss is greatly attributed to the out-dated electricity Act of 1999.
It should be noted with concern that the electricity act 1999 has weak punishment for those who steal power.
As much as the Utilities, Standards and Wildlife Court, which is supposed to prosecute culprits involved in stealing power and vandalism was created by the judiciary, the electricity act has got very weak when it comes to dishing out punishments to culprits.
Power theft, illegal connection and vandalism in Uganda are rampant crimes; wires are left exposed which at times lead to electrocutions and loss eventual loss of human life and property. This practice has been on-going for quite a long time which leads to loss of boss revenues and investment.
Section 88(1) of the electricity act 1999 imposes a penalty of thirty currency points or two years imprisonment or both to anyone who steals power. The act does not provide stringent punishments to culprits of power theft or vandalism to equipment from the network, despite the huge losses the habits cause to the company and the country at large.
The electricity amendment bill 2020 to repeal the Electricity act of 1999 was approved by the cabinet on July 20, 2020 but it is moving at snail’s pace yet the electricity sector is facing a lot of challenges that can only be addressed by amending the Electricity Act.
Over the years, ERA, electricity distribution companies, stakeholders and electricity consumers have come up to state that the challenges in the electricity sector are attributed to the out-dated electricity act 1999.
The electricity act 199 has since became an out-dated law to address the emerging issues like deemed power, high power tariffs, issues of compulsory land acquisition, over-reliance on the grid, and economic setbacks among others.
The power subsector still faces several challenges and these range from, faulty meters, constant electrocutions, power outages, constant old and falling electric poles, power theft and vandalism and cutting off of government hospitals which has claimed patients’ lives.
On top of power theft, the electricity sector is facing other challenges like:
- a) High power tariffs: even after commissioning the 183MW hydro power dam, the power tariffs remained the same as in the previous years. The prices include Shs. 751.9 per unit for domestic consumers, Shs. 645.6 for commercial consumers and Shs. 361 for large industries.
If the service fee and Value Added Tax (VAT) costs are added to the above prices, domestic consumers pay nearly Shs. 1,000 per unit of power. The cost paid by the commercial and large consumers also increases. These costs are too high and continue to keep 74% of the Ugandan population from accessing grid power.
Despite this, news of the high power prices that government refused to lower raised limited public debate. This is because of the promises by the president, ERA and other energy sector players that efforts such as refinancing of Bujagali dam, adding power from Isimba dam to the grid, increasing power demand through extension of power to industrial parks and others would reduce power tariffs; power prices have remained stubbornly high. Even when international oil prices, which determine power prices in Uganda, are lower, the price remains high.
Ugandans are too fed up by government’s failure and lies over reducing power tariffs and they blamed the high power tariff on the failure to amend the electricity.
b). Deemed power: some of the reason power prices remain high is the production of deemed energy. According the Auditor General, by June 2020 the deemed energy was 110.79B causing a strain on government resources. This deemed power negatively impacts on the electricity consumers through high power tariffs which maybe a hindrance to electricity demand hence hindering economic growth.
Uganda’s total installed capacity currently stands at over1,268.9 MW Per December 2020 statistics from ERA, the peak domestic and export demand for power is 723.76MW. In effect, as at December 2020, Uganda was producing 545.14MW of excess power that was not being consumed, but had to be paid for. The excess power (deemed energy) that is being produced has increased dams such as Achwa II. you must be aware that the old 1999 electricity Act cannot address such emerging issues in the electricity sector.
c). Over-reliance on the grid: Uganda is over reliant on grid-based hydro and other power. While Uganda’s grid-based installed capacity is over 1268.9MW, Uganda produces only 13.9MW of off-grid power. To meet the energy needs of the majority of citizens who cannot afford grid-based power, it is important for government to undertake measures to increase investments in the off-grid energy sector. Therefore amendment of the electricity act will help government to increase investment in the off-grid energy.
d).power outrage: Other challenges such as power outrage that saw Uganda experience four nationwide power blackouts in May, June 2020 and February 2021. This caused by lack of transparency and corruption while signing power purchase agreements with power companies and land acquisition challenges through which communities resist to give out their land without payment of prompt, fair and adequate compensation in conformity with Article 26 of the 1995 Uganda Constitution .
e). Constant disconnection and unreliable power supply in hospitals:, hospitals are still facing a challenge of electricity disconnection due to unpaid bills but the underlying problem is the weak Electricity Act of 1999 because the Electricity Act of 1999 does not have any provision to ensure hospitals access affordable and reliable electricity. This has led to major hospitals which serve mostly the poor in all the regions of Uganda to be disconnected from electricity supply due to unpaid bills.
f). Economic setbacks: unaffordable and unreliable power supply in Uganda has caused a lot of economic challenges. Ugandans have suffered economic setbacks because of the out-dated Electricity Act of 1999 and other electricity failures like Faulty meters, bad Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), unfair concessions, inflated and delayed monthly bills, weak regulation, ignoring the recommendations of parliament without justification, delayed justice by the judiciary that takes years to determine cases, among other failures.
It should be noted that affordable and reliable electricity can drive economic production, has the ability to increase the country’s tax base, can enhance the competitiveness of our goods and can increase our export earnings.
g). Old poles, transformers and wires: On several occasions, electric poles, wires, and transformers have fallen and damaged people’s property and causing injuries to people’s lives and there is no law to determine the size, duration of the poles and transformers to ensure safety and standards for the quality service.
It is very clear that wooden poles are weak and do not last long.
On Sunday, March 3, 2021, daily monitor reported that about 2,000 residents of Wakawaka Landing Site, Bulidha Sub-county in Bugiri District risk being electrocuted as two electricity poles remain in the lake for close to a year.
Therefore, the in the new proposed electricity act, the new act must enforce the use of metallic and concrete.
f). Impacts on the environment: Due to high power tariffs, the majority Ugandans has resorted to use of firewood and charcoal for cooking. This implies that the forests are degraded for due to charcoal burning and firewood. It was reported that 94.2% of the households in Uganda use biomass (firewood and charcoal) for cooking and tadoobas (paraffin candles) are still the main source of lighting in rural areas.
This has not only seen Uganda lose her forest cover at an alarming annual rate of 100,000 hectares per year, it also means that women and our ailing healthcare system are burdened with respiratory illnesses, heart disease and cancers linked to use of firewood in cooking.
MEMD should work with ERA and present the Electricity Bill 2020 to parliament and the bill must address the following;
- Provide for tougher and deterring punishment for power theft and vandalism.
- The distribution companies should be panelised for power outrage and compensate the affected users for the loss suffered due to power blackout.
- The Bill should also make provisions on alternative power supply specifically off-grid energy sector.
- The Bill should also provide for compulsory land acquisition in line with Article 26 of the 1995 constitution to solve issues of deemed power.
- The Bill should also put a limit on borrowing money to invest in grid power that leads to high return on investment that make power very expensive.
- The Bill should also provide for that complaints filled in the electricity tribunal must be concluded in 30 days from day to filling and appeals from the tribunal to High court in 40 days from the day of filling the appeal.
- The Bill should to hold government officials who sign bad power purchase agreement that cause losses to government through corruption to be personally held liable.
- The Bill should also provide for the alternative ways the distribution companies can be paid their bills other than cutting off power like to withholding monies owed to Uganda Electricity Transmission Co. Ltd (UETCL) to offset debts by hospitals. Previously, UMEME has withheld money it owes to UETCL to offset debts owed by government entities.
- Provide for standard electricity meters and makes it punishable for a supplier that delivers substandard meters.
- Make it mandatory requirement to use of metallic and concrete and replace all the wooden electricity poles within a year from the passing of the Act.
Doreen Namara is the legal officer at AFIEGO