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Why Isimba Shutdown Makes Uganda Suffer Blackouts and Import

Uganda’s power generation plants have the capacity to produce about 1,346 megawatts, according to the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), as of December 2021, while the demand stands at about 800 megawatts.
Contractors say Karuma Hydropower Project phase one is complete.

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The move by the government to shut down Isimba hydropower plant will not only affect electricity supply, but also raise questions as to why rationing is even necessary.

Uganda’s power generation plants have the capacity to produce about 1,346 megawatts, according to the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), as of December 2021, while the demand stands at about 800 megawatts.

This leaves a surplus (idle capacity) of 546 megawatts, the main generation plants being Nalubaale Power Station with 180 megawatts and Bujagali Power Dam with 250 megawatts, while Kiira Power Dam and Isimba have 200 and 180 megawatts respectively, of installed capacity.

The delayed Karuma power project was expected to add another 600 megawatts by June this year, to raise the wattage to 1,946 MW, but commissioning has again been extended.

There are more than 30 other smaller hydropower stations around the country, solar and thermal plants, as well as “cogeneration” plants by both government and private producers, which feed onto the national grid.

Therefore, when Isimba closes its 180-megawatt capacity, there is still a surplus capacity of 366 megawatts.

But according to the Minister for Energy and Mineral Development, Ruth Nankabirwa, the government is going to purchase 20 megawatts from Kakira Sugar Works, switch on the Namanve Thermal Power plant for 50 Megawatts and import another 60 Megawatts from Kenya, as part of the emergency solutions.She however says that only areas served by Isimba will be affected.

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In an August 16, 2022 press release, the Ministry of Energy indicated that the load-shedding would go on for three weeks. Traders are counting losses because of the load-shedding.

The Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) says the government should not be rationing power at this time, with all the funds that have been invested in the sector.  

“Government must work with the Independent Power Producers (IPPs) that Ugandans have paid 1.4 trillion shillings over the last 16 years for deemed (unconsumed) power to ensure that the ongoing load-shedding ends, these companies must fill the electricity supply gap left by the shutdown of Isimba dam,” says a statement from the NGO.

The load-shedding, which has affected the Kampala metropolitan area and parts of eastern Uganda, started immediately after the temporary shutdown of Isimba hydropower dam.

Reports indicate that the dam was shut down following a “human error” in which an engineer from Uganda Electricity Generation Co. Ltd (UEGCL) opened the radial outflow instead of inflow gates at the dam, leading to flooding of key equipment.

The error will take a total of 5 billion shillings to rectify.

Dickens Kamugisha, the Executive Director AFIEGO, says it is confusing for the government to ask for billions of shillings every year to pay for surplus power and yet start looking for emergency sources when a 180mw plant is closed down.

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Following the Isimba dam shutdown, UMEME, which distributes over 90 percent of Uganda’s electricity, warned Ugandans to brace for power blackouts.

“It is absurd that the shutdown of Isimba dam has occasioned load-shedding. The truth is that the electricity sector is greatly mismanaged," Kamugisha says. "The Electricity Regulatory Authority has been issuing electricity generation licenses to companies without ensuring that transmission infrastructure is in place, leading to production of the so-called excess or deemed electricity.”

Kamugisha adds that the ‘human error’ cited as the cause of the problem at Isimba could signal the dangers paused by the government-single-sourced contractors.

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According to analysts, unused energy mainly results from the lack of adequate evacuation infrastructure to areas of demand.

However, the Electricity Regulatory Authority says even when it is all evacuated, there must be excess energy at any one time, to cater for increasing demand, to avoid cases of demand overtaking generation. 

 

MP Emmanuel Otala, the chairperson of parliament’s National Resources Committee said recently said that the non-existent or weak grid infrastructure, and insufficient demand, has consistently resulted into the government incurring costs for deemed energy.

“For instance, the Committee noted that failure to complete the 132kV Gulu-Agago transmission lines would result in deemed energy costs for un-evacuated electricity from Achwa hydro power plant,” said Dr. Otaala.

The measures announced by Minister Nankabirwa add up to only 130 megawatts., and

Kamugisha wonders why the many companies that have been issued with licenses are not able to increase generation to the required levels.

“It is clear that the many electricity generation licenses that are being issued in Uganda aren’t about guaranteeing reliable electricity services for Ugandans, corruption must be driving the licensing processes and production of the so-called excess power in Uganda,” he says.

In the 2022/2023 National Budget Framework Paper, the government indicated that 193 billion Shillings is needed to pay for deemed energy this financial year. Further, over the last 16 years, government has paid Shs. 1.4 trillion to 13 firms in deemed energy costs.

“Something is amiss within the electricity sector and if nothing is done, Ugandans will continue to lose trillions of shillings while facing power sector crises," said Ireen Twongire of Women for Green Economic Movement (WoGEM). "The Inspector General of Government (IGG) should interest herself in the electricity sector. She should investigate possible connivance between ERA and Independent Power Producers.” 

Patrick Edema, a youth clean energy champion, says, government should change its electricity sector investment strategy and look for ways of enhancing electricity demand instead of paying for unused power.

“Instead of paying companies to generate excess power, the government should support communities to access off-grid solar home systems which can be deployed for production purposes as well,” says Edema.

Karuma hydroelectric power station project is planned to be commissioned by June 2023, after the contractors, Sinohydro failed to beat the September 2022 deadline.

The commercial manager, Kou Zhibin attributed the delays to several setbacks like the Covid-19 pandemic, but says that by the beginning of this month, the project was 99 percent complete.

The contractor says they are now conducting ‘dry tests’ for safety, the step that comes at the tail end of the construction.

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