Olice Kemenanabo, Manager Director, Bayelsa Electricity Company holds a conversation with Nseobong Okon-Ekong on the politics of power generation and distribution and its effect on governance in Bayelsa State
Why do you think qualifies you for the present task that the Bayelsa State Governor has given to you?
I was born in Ghana; I went to primary school in Ghana and later completed my primary education in Nigeria. I went to Government Secondary School Odi where I left with West Africa School Certificate. I attended University of Port Harcourt as an Electrical Engineering student. I graduated 1984. In my youth service year, I was engaged as a teacher. Then the Rivers state Utility Board found me worthy and engaged me where I rose to a Senior Electrical Engineer before I went on to work with the Oil Mineral Producing Area Development Commission as a Principal Engineer and Project Manager in charge of various electricity projects because of my background. Thereafter I was spotted by the then deputy governor of Bayelsa state who incidentally was my work mate and later became the President of this country. I was asked to deliver a lecture in one of their transition committees on Power and I left there not wanting to be a part of the development programme of any place. I just wanted to be a freelancer but the late Governor Alamieseigha caught me one day surprisingly and asked me of my full names and all he did was to announce my name that I am the General Manager Bayelsa State Electricity Board. I questioned him and he said the announcement was sacrosanct that I should resume duty immediately. That’s how my journey as an electrical engineer started and ever since then I think I have made various strides at the national level, I have been one time distinguished electrical and electronics engineer, engineers’ annual lecturer 2012 the twelfth person. So in the annals of the history of engineering I am the 12th person that is in the hall of fame of engineering in this country.
What are the constitutional limitations of a state in running an independent power plant?
There are economic and technical limitations because every state has the capacity to do its own independent power system but you must meet up your technical and commercial obligations. The first technical obligation you need to meet is to provide the power system but the most difficult aspect is the commercial obligation and particularly in Bayelsa state there is this entitlement syndrome that we own the gas so why should we pay for the gas. As a matter of fact let me give you the Kolo Creek scenario, as the immediate past administration came in, we rehabilitated the power station running smoothly eventually we agreed with SPDC to pay for gas and we entered into a gaseous agreement but because we were not able to meet up the monthly gaseous agreement, Shell tracked us until it got to when we need to do some turn around mentainance and they requested that the plant be shut down. When they shut down the gas plant and we were to come back on stream, we requested for gas to be brought and they said until we pay all the previous debts including the one that we signed with them that they are not going to give us gas and that is why we ended Kolo Creek.
It was not as if technically the machine is not supposed to be running and now when you go to ask, why don’t you want to give us gas because the gas was coming from our soil? And they asked you question, do you take petrol free from any of the NNPC filling stations because the crude oil is from your soil? The answer is no. So they shut down the power station because we were not able to provide the necessary funds for payment for gas tariffs.
Why is it that oil companies successfully run their own power plant and they are doing very well?
Why they do very well is simply because they have a sustainability plan. Part of the sustainability plan is the commercial part of it. The oil companies do the gas for themselves and they have domestic obligations.
So they take as part of the domestic obligation and yet pay back to NNPC as part of their domestic obligations. so if you think that you own gas in your ground and then you want to use the gas and you don’t want to pay the man that produce the gas he has every reason to shut you down, so that is the simple reason. And again, I like to put it this way as well, power is not politically driven rather it is driven technically and economically. The other aspect that we appendage to ensure that the system functions is the political aspect. A man must have the political will to say that this is what I want to do but if you mention it to the world that I want to provide free power to the people then you must also be able to provide the necessary ingredient for that free power. The first ingredient is commercial viability. I can tell you and it’s no shame to say this, very recently, I accepted to come to this programme because I believe very strongly that we are walking with somebody who wants to learn and who is also learning, a person who wants to listen and who will also want to impart that knowledge to another person which is the person of the Governor of Bayelsa state, Senator Douye Diri. We had a NIPP power plant in Gbarain 225 megawatt power plant, 2015 was when that power plant was commissioned but not even a single megawatt of electricity is thrown into the Bayelsa state network why, because NIPP felt that embedding that power into Bayelsa will mean that they are not going to make money so they decided to take the entire power to the grid so we now have to buy from the market operator back into our own system in spite of the fact that we have a NIPP power plant that is existing in this place. The reason being that the community around that place said their host communities should be entitled to free power supply. So once you get to that level the man who wants to give electricity, even if he wants to give free, he will be thinking that the day I am not able to provide the electricity I will be antagonized that is the basic reason why power is actually a problem in this country.
Let’s look at another problem that the power sector is facing especially in this state. Now PHEDC has dedicated lines what you call dedicated lines and they are very essential for selected government institutions you look at places like the specialist hospital, FMC, Bayelsa Medical University because it has a hospital as well, those are dedicated lines they are specialized and people pay a lot to get these lines. However these clients still seem to suffer the fate that every other user of electricity suffers. What is the cause of this and how can these be resolved?
The dedicated line you are referring to was constructed by the state government under my direct supervision. It’s a 12 kilometer line that radiates from the Gbarain Toru transmission substation. It was actually dedicated to Government House only but I included after discussions with the then government that we need to supply this to government critical infrastructures as well after doing that and we commissioned the line, the statutory requirement is that the franchise company operating within your distribution area should be handed the infrastructure. So we handed over the infrastructure to PHEDC and they don’t have enough staff to maintain the line and so once there is any technical issue, it takes them hours to even go and get the line cleared.
As the government came, I insisted we want to take the line back from PHEDC and we make sure that we run it and you collect your money but at every point in time whatever cost we incurred will be deducted from the bill that you send to us. Even that they refused believing that we want to enter what we refer to as Eligible Customers Status. It means that you can directly sign a contract with the Transmission Company of Nigeria and manage your power system but because they felt that I was a member of the PHEDC board they blackmailed me and I was taken to court for wanting to move out of the agreement we already have that PHEDC should be the franchise company for Bayelsa, Rivers state and Akwa ibom. So the line is available but the level of mentainance from the franchise company is next to zero. Even as I speak to you, it is we that are maintaining the line but they collect the money. PHEDC does not have one single dedicated line to be honest with you, the dedicated line was constructed by us and we insisted that it should be taken to all critical infrastructure. We constructed a line to the Bayelsa Medical University, we also took it to FMC, and right now we are also directed to take it to the residences of the DSS director and then the Commissioner of Police but I bet you for as long as they don’t have enough manpower to manage the line, we will still be running into these technical problems.
We are trying to see how we can synergize with them to give them technical support to clean up the line particularly during the rainy season and then I can be sure that we have at least 720 hours of light in a month and I refuse to accept that the dedicated line should go to the public for one reason. Once it gets to the public, payment will become an issue. The payment history we have even on this line, is such that some of the government institutions that are on that line are owing over N25 million and these people buy this electricity from the market operator and you go to pay the market operator less than N25 million and next time you go they will refuse to sell to you. PHEDC have their own constrains in terms of even buying electricity from the market operators they don’t own the electricity they only own the infrastructure somebody sells it to them. If you don’t return my energy, I will no longer sell to you. So 80% of the times you don’t see power in the state just know that it is the distribution company that has deliberately refused to give flow because they will not be able to meet their marketing obligations.
You have given us an insight to the problems of electricity in the state, what can the common man do to ensure these issues are solved to have steady power supply for the general public not for the dedicated lines?
First and foremost, the power system is divided into three major components. Even if your distribution network is vibrant, is effective, it is technically compliant, if you don’t have generation your lines are just sitting there doing nothing. In most cases even in the dedicated lines, we have three or more grid collapse within one week and so people begin to think as if it is the distribution company that’s the problem. If you don’t know, you think it is the distribution company that decided not to distribute but I tell you we derive our power supply from Owerri which is the source of our grid and if there is a collapse in Owerri it means there will be no power supply in Bayelsa state as well and like I said the NIPP plant we have also depends on grid supply to start up because they have what we call the black start generators.
These black start generators are nonfunctional and so when there is a grid collapse they cant start their plants on their own. What we have done now is to make sure that we provide prepaid meters for at least 80% of the consumers. The onus now lies on the consumers according to the new regulation from the User Asset Provider Scheme. If you want meter, the distribution company doesn’t provide the meters You will pay for the meter, hand it over to them to install, after they install it doesn’t belong to you again, it belong to them which is the law and 80% of Bayelsans cannot afford the meters, so we are entering into an agreement with a company called Holay and one other company that are supposed to be providers for Bayelsa state. Once we sign the agreement, the state government will drop about 15% of cost of the meters and then they will begin to bring the meters for us. With the meter available and if they are prepaid and we monitor them and energy is not lost and therefore we will reduce what we call the ATC&C losses. We can manage the technical losses but we cannot manage the commercial losses.
What we are saying now can you translate it to power supply. If we succeed in this, how many hours of supply will the people get daily?
If the general public pay for what is supplied, 24 hors is possible. Even me I cannot pay for 24 hours of electricity and so if availability is an issue I can understand. The power is available and so if I give you three hours of electricity a day and then you accumulate it to the end of the month. Let’s say you had 200 or 300 hours of electricity 1 kilowatt hour of electricity will cost you about N24 per kilowatt hour and so if you have 2 kilowatt hour in your house you multiply that by 24 hours of electricity and then by 30 days. You will imagine that your entire salary in one month probably is not enough to provide your electricity.