Gambia: Energy-Shift, A Sure Panacea for Sustainable Electricity Supply in the Gambia

29 April 2020

Decades have gone by, time has elapsed, and yet the same problem continues and for as long as we do not shift our energy outlook; affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy (electricity) supply will remain elusive in the Gambia, commendable concerted remedial efforts such as Karpower notwithstanding. A new energy outlook or positioning, the "Energy-Shift" must begin with the biggest consumer (relative to singularity spending on energy), the government. Relatively, without reliable statistics but basing my postulation on deductive reasoning, and approximation of scale of consumption, it is reasonable to relegate the largest energy consumer to the government setting aside the private sector. The government is not limited to the central government but also the two municipal and regional governments in all five regions in the country. The central government coupled with the regional governments across the Gambia put together are undoubtedly responsible for the consumption of a significant energy percentage (%) output of the grid. Therefore, the Energy Shift must begin with the government, hereafter referring to the central, municipal and regional governments. In taking the lead for the Energy Shift the government shall reduce dependence on the grid and reorient the population towards the long sustained but purposeful march towards renewable energies. This implies a new drive towards an energy generation mix for the country.

As a reminder, it is instructive to note: "According to the World Bank Investment Climate Assessment for The Gambia, the lack of a stable and extended electricity system represented the most serious obstacle to business in the country. Considering the continuing instability and fragility state of the energy sector, it is likely that the unreliable provision of electricity remains a major obstacle to economic expansion. Lack of access to electricity also hinders social development and constrains the delivery of healthcare and education services in the country (World Bank, 2009)." While we take note, while we explore all sorts of remedies to address these challenges, I am of the opinion extraordinary situations warrant extraordinary and innovative actions. We can no longer wait for reports after reports to tell us what we already know. Now, action is what is required. This ought to be a priority above only food security. Electricity is a key driver for economic development and there are no two ways about.

The Gambia government ought to now resign itself to the fact that we as a nation may not be able to ever provide affordable and sustainable supply of electricity to the consumer with singular reliance on the national utility company, NAWEC (This is not an indictment on NAWEC). In my humble opinion, the only individual qualified to speak on NAWEC's woes (certainly not me), is an individual who has institutional memory of NAWEC, and equally not by proxy, excepting PURA in any case. Placing the blame for NAWEC's challenges at the door step of one person can only happen after working a mile in the shoes of those who have or had experienced running the institution, or the very least be associated with the institution, or worked for it. A fact in the public domain is that the institution suffers from capacity issues (here capacity is rather abstract) but that is what was pronounced in the media as a key challenge for NAWEC (PURA report in 2012 also spelled out key challenges). We will take these admissible pronouncements on face value. Without a doubt NAWEC's woes emanated from maladministration of the Jammeh government (that is a story for another day) Therefore, this piece is simply an opinion borne out of interest to address a national concern.

The Gambia, by the way, among the five countries, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, and Ghana, comparatively has the highest electricity tariff of 0.28 (US$/kWh), at today's exchange rate that equals 14.27 (GMD/kWh), while regional tariffs are 0.17, 0.20, 0.12, and 0.06 respectively. As at 2019, the global average tariff is 0.14 and 0.12 (US$/kWh) for household and businesses respectively (Globalpetrolprices, 2020), Gambia's tariff is twice the global average. High cost of electricity has its own economic implications which are outside the scope of this piece. That will be a matter in another piece. However, the cost of electricity, in the wider scheme of things is not a primary concern for Gambians. The consumer behavior for willingness to buy is a function of motivation. If supply is guaranteed (which is what Gambians seek), the consumer will be motivated to find means to purchase. In Gambia's case, the supply is far from dependable; it is erratic to say the least. The issue is unreliable energy supply marred with interminable load sharing derived often from inextricable scheduled maintenance of the power machines. Supply is also often interrupted because of breakdown(s) of antiquated machines that we are told have long served their useful purpose post-colonial era. For decades on end the same machines are kept just spluttering on until help comes; help is far in coming. The difficulties with electricity supply is the single existential threat to economic development of the country.

The proposition is, since there is little supply of electricity to go around in the Greater Banjul Area, comparatively the most electrified part of the country, the industrial hub, the seat of government, and most populous part of the country with 60% of the population, government as the supplier of essential services ought to shift resources for the development of renewables for the Greater Banjul Area. How might the government accomplish this?

The government should now undertake a shift (to benefit from a diversified energy mix) and rewire the entire government outfits across the country (in phases) for solar power or the most viable renewables that is fit for purpose. For example, the whole of Quadrangle, the Ministry of Education (MoBSE) and schools under its docket in phases, the Police headquarters and all ministries along the stretch of Marina Parade to the Supreme Court, further on to the National Assembly should be taken off grid for a sustainable source of electricity. This writer's own employer, UTG is not exempted from being taken off the grid. This will reduce demand on NAWEC, a win-win situation for NAWEC and the private consumers. NAWEC's total output will be dedicated to private consumers who may now share the load that would have been consumed by the government. NAWEC will benefit in scaling up its resources for efficiency as the pressure of demand is downsized to equal relative capacity. Symbolically, the government will also send a strong message for energy shift that may have a snowball effect of the private sector shifting from the grid. This may also contribute (however little) to environmental performance in the reduction of carbon emission. In the long run this contribution will rise to significance in improving the carbon footprints of the nation.

This proposed shift is also in line with PAGE (Program for Accelerated Growth and Employment). PAGE was designed with a singular overarching aim for the furtherance of cross-sectional socio-economic development. The government's aim vis-à-vis electricity is nothing less than increasing electricity generation, enhanced access to electricity and improved operational efficiency. This is expected to be achieved through four fundamentals ways: 1) providing reasonable incentives and facilitation to promote private sector investment in electricity-generation projects; 2) promoting efficient technologies in utility companies to increase their operational efficiency; 3) undertaking the replacement and upgrading of aging transmission and distribution systems; and 4) promoting the use of renewable energy technologies (such as wind, solar and biomass), with emphasis on rural areas (MOFEA, 2011).

While all efforts are being made on a regional and national level to ensure sustainable electricity supply for socio-economic development of the entire region, the reported pronouncements such as in the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMA) ought not to be slogans but pragmatic useful outcomes. Objective number 4 above is the focus of this write-up. All pain points of NAWEC are not illusions to anyone (better yet apart from capacity challenges, were all challenges clearly identified?). Remedial efforts appear not to bear any fruit in ensuring the effective functioning of the institution. While efforts are being made to correct the issues whatever they may be with NAWEC (Some of these challenges were highlighted in PURA report 2012), the government should now redirect some resources for an energy shift program that in the short term will take the government off the grid. The government should pioneer in this direction for the nation to follow in understanding and appreciating renewable energy.

The paradigm is here called "Energy-Shift". The gains for government will in the long run safe on its energy bill; will also avoid the wrath of interruptions in electricity supply; will avoid contributing to carbon emissions through standby generators with a frequency of use that it is a misnomer to be called standby; and above all, it will set a new precedent in the direction of gaining environmental legitimacy and performance. With such a shift, Gambia may set a model to be studied by the rest of the region if not continentally (although Senegal is adanced stages working on a diversified energy mix). In the meantime, NAWEC's capacity challenges are best addressed inter alia with a strong organizational commitment to item one (1) above: providing reasonable incentives and facilitation to promote private sector investment in electricity-generation projects. A complementarity of strong private investment in creation of a diversified energy mix will ease the burden on NAWEC and by default increase capacity and external collaboration for the institution. PURA along with NAWEC, by way of the Ministry of Energy should take the lead in encouraging private sector investment in electricity-generation projects. PURA can play a pivotal rule in this direction. This can only make for a better Gambia and make electricity challenges a thing of the past for a better economy and a happy citizenry.

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