27 January 2014

Liberia: Small Light Gets Bigger 2015

Photo: Liberia Government
Remains of the looted Mt. Coffee Hydro Plant outside Monrovia.

Monrovia — Over the past seven years, the Sirleaf Administration took the nation through a catch-22 situation that to many, appeared to have lasted forever. Liberia contracted little foreign direct investment because it lacked the minimal necessary infrastructure, such as electric power, to meet the needs of investors; but it could not have the minimal necessary infrastructure unless it attracted foreign direct investment and empathetic economic partnership. Now with the launch of the Mount Coffee hydro plant rehabilitation project last week - and with the prospects of the nation getting its own hydroelectric power grid the launch generated - there seem no doubts in and out of the Sirleaf Administration that the nation is on its way to gaining a competitive edge in the ECOWAS subregion. The Analyst was at the launch and trapped the enthusiasm and recommitments.

If all matches up to plan, Liberia will shortly recover its hydroelectricity grid, thereby increasing its chances of attracting more foreign direct investment to beef up its economy and its recovery efforts.

This was at least the general feelings amongst officials of the Sirleaf Administration and representatives of Liberia's economic partners during the launch, on Saturday January 25, 2014, of the rehabilitation project of the Mt. Coffee hydro plant. The plant suffered enormous devastation sometime in June of 1990 when then besieging NPFL rebels shot through it to disrupt power and water supplies to the capital, then occupied by rival government forces. The plant has remained derelict since then, lost in the enormity of the nation's reconstruction priorities and requiring millions of resuscitation dollars measured in hard offshore currency.

Good day with rising hope

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who delivered a short statement at the launch, was equally affected by the enthusiasm of Liberia recovering its hydropower grid, gaining on investors, and getting Liberians back to work - away from poverty and desperation - and she made no light of her feelings.

“By December 2015, the rehabilitation of Mount Coffee Hydro Project will be completed,” the President said, describing the hydro rehabilitation launch of as “a good day for Liberia”.

An array of government officials, members of the National Legislature and the country's international development partners accompanied the President to the launch site in Harris Town in Upper Caldwell west of capital.

The weekend hydro rehabilitation launch, observers say, marked a significant step in the realization of the President's policy pledge shortly upon inauguration in 2006, to move Liberia from “small light today [to] big light tomorrow”.

The Liberian Chief executive recalled during the launch that when she first visited the hydro in 2007, access to the site was rugged and challenging - there was no reliable bridge over the Stockton Creek that separates Caldwell Township from the capital, and there was no conditioned motor road. But she said things have changed dramatically since then.

“Roads and bridges are all fixed and it was an easy ride to get here today,” said the President. She then assured the Liberian people that with so many sincere cooperating hands on deck contractors would have no reason not to complete rehabilitation work as scheduled.

“We will continue to promote togetherness to [get] things done for the development agenda, not only for the hydro but also throughout the country,” she said.

The President said upon completion the hydro facilities would offer fishing and boat-ride services to holiday makers thereby boosting the tourism industry, which observers say remains underdeveloped despite government's annual budgetary support.

Finance Minister Amara Konneh, who accompanied the President to the launch site, also shared the administration's confidence in the rehabilitation work.

“The project is an outcome of President Sirleaf's bold leadership and an important centerpiece of her flagship development agenda, the ‘Agenda for Transformation',” Minister Konneh said during remarks at the launch.

Apparently excited by the Mount Coffee Power Plant rehabilitation groundbreaking ceremony, Finance Minister Konneh noted, "The ground breaking of the Mount Coffee hydro is an important step to bringing power to more people across the country.”

Partly funded by significant investment from the Government of Liberia and a key element of its public sector investment strategy, the hydro, when rehabilitated, will be a main boost to businesses and light manufacturing industries while at the same time increasing employment opportunities.

Konneh said the government has infused roughly US $45 million into the energy sector. The infusion of this huge amount from the national coffers, Konneh said, demonstrated a key development priority of President Sirleaf.

“It is very important that we do all we can to ensure that Mount Coffee is a success story even if we have to cut foreign travels, gas, scratch cards and recurrent spending and save money to invest in project like these,” the Finance boss said, apparently showing a bigger picture of the national development agenda against pecuniary interest.

“For those of our people who need to understand the extent to which this country was destroyed and the bold step we are taking to have our infrastructure revitalized, come to Mount Coffee,” he said.

The key economic manager recounted the President's first inaugural address in which she promised to make energy number one in her infrastructural priorities, convinced that energy plays a vital role in the transformation of Liberia.

The cost for rehabilitation of the Mount Coffee plant, which was built in 1966, according to Minister Konneh, is estimated to be between US $250 million and US $300 million.

Lands, Mines and Energy Minister Patrick Sendolo, who also spoke at the occasion, said the rehabilitation of the Mount Coffee plant was the first result of collaborative efforts between the development partners and government. He then thanked all government's development partners for the launch.

Also addressing the launch, a representative of the management of the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) commended all stakeholders, including development partners, for their efforts that led to the launch of the hydro rehabilitation project.

LEC Board Chair, Lands, Mines and Energy Minister Patrick Sendolo, who also addressed the launch, disclosed that part of the sacrifice that Liberia has to make in order to get the hydro up and running was to allow for the appointment of a foreign national as managing director at the behest of the nation's partners and donors.

He said the donors' demand was based on their doubt in the ability of Liberians to adequately manage the money they were putting into the rehabilitation of the LEC. The government of Liberia, he said, had to capitulate because it did not have the funds to undertake the project single-handedly.

Sendolo, however, made it clear that the management of the LEC would revert to Liberians in 2016 at the end of the contractual period.

The new plant, according to government sources, is designed to cast a delicate balance between reduced energy production in the dry season and high-energy production in the rainy season, which is related to the rising and ebbing of the St. Paul River. The balance, the sources said, would also stabilize the tariff and reduce the current cost per kilowatt-hour by more than half the current rate.

Facts and reflection

Last Saturday's launch came as the direct result of years of tedious domestic planning and negotiations with the nation's economic partners to resuscitate the hydro plant. The Sirleaf Administration designed the domestic plans and engaged in the marathon negotiations to cut back on energy cost while maximizing energy availability and redirect the savings to other priority areas of recovery.

During the process, the administration invited applications for post-qualification and bids to reconstruct the main dam and rehabilitate the powerhouse of the 64-MW Mount Coffee hydroelectric plant. Contractor sources say the rehabilitated plant will be a superior version of its old self.

The initial generating capacity of the plant was 30 MW produced by two turbines, which was increased to 64 MW with the addition of two turbines in 1973.

The Monrovia Power Authority, which ran the plant initially, became the Liberia Electricity Corporation on July 12, 1973. In June 1990, the government announced plans to more than double the electricity generating capacity of the plant by adding a reservoir to allow more generation during the dry season.

The plans called for a new 4,000 feet (1,200 m) dam to be built upriver on the Via River to provide storage capacity, while two 52 MW turbines would be added at the existing power generating plant. The US $300 million expansion was never begun due to the civil war.

The expansion appeared unlikely until recently when the Voith Hydro GmbH & Co. KG, a German company, won the contract from the Liberia Electricity Corporation to supply and install generating equipment for the Mt. Coffee hydropower plant.

The generating equipment to be provided under this contract includes the turbines and generators (each with a capacity of over 20 MW), governors, generator circuit breakers, generator step-up transformers, gas-insulated switchgear, bridge crane, and associated equipment. The contract was signed on October 18 and October 23, 2013, in Monrovia and Heidenheim, Germany, respectively.

In order to maintain the targeted project schedule, LEC signed a memorandum of understanding with Voith Hydro on August 23, 2013, which enabled Voith to begin the engineering of the turbines while contract negotiations were being carried out.

Though this was not a typical practice, government negotiators said it accorded LEC and Voith sufficient time to ensure that the details of the final contract were carefully considered without compromising the project schedule. LEC authorities say they have been “very pleased with the commitment and confidence demonstrated by Voith Hydro in taking this extraordinary step”.

The government also called for bids in November for site rehabilitation and in September to refurbish or install new gates, penstocks, and other hydraulic steelwork at the project, whose restored capacity is estimated at between 60 and 80 MW.

Mount Coffee was destroyed during a period of civil war in the early 1990s, making the cost of repairs and upgrades an estimated US$ 230 million. The government has received funding from various donors including the European Investment Bank and the European Central Bank to help finance the work.

The government now invites post-qualification and tenders for Main Contract 2A for rehabilitation of the hydropower plant. The contract features preparatory works including the camp; reconstruction of the main dam and rehabilitation of the existing ones; powerhouse, spillway, and intake rehabilitation works; infrastructure and road works; and coordination of other works. The work is to be performed from May 2014 to December 2016.

The Mount Coffee Hydro Project is co-financed by the Government of Norway, Government of Germany (KfW Development Bank), European Investment Bank, and Government of Liberia. Townships around the plant include Harrisburg, Arthington, and Mount Coffee.

The Generating Equipment contract (turbines and generators) has been awarded to Voith Hydro of Germany; while qualification was completed, tendering for both the Hydraulic Steelworks and Civil Enabling Works is underway. Qualification for main civil works is open.

The Mt. Coffee project began in May 2012 with the establishment of the Mt. Coffee Project Implementation Unit. The project is well underway with on-site construction anticipated to begin this month.

The first power is expected to be generated from the hydropower plant in December 2015, when the first turbine is put in service while full commissioning and project completion is scheduled by end of year 2016.

Although the pre-war Mount Coffee Plant had a capacity of 64 MW prior to its destruction, the Mount Coffee Hydro plant is anticipated to have a capacity of 80 megawatts (MW) when rehabilitated.

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