Generator ban: Poor timing, wrong target

Nigeria’s senate has finally identified the demon behind the country’s eternal darkness. Millions of generators of varying shapes and sizes spewing thick columns of smoke into the air and polluting the environment with deafening noise are the culprits.

The senate is poised to deliver a crushing punch on the target. On one frenzied Wednesday in March 2020, the senate passed a bill banning the importation and use of the menacing power generating sets.

Derisively tagged “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit/Ban the use of Generating Sets to Curb the Menace of Environmental (Air) Pollution and Facilitate the Development of the Power Sector”, the bill reminds me of the directive the U.S. Air Force issued in 1997 to Flight Lieutenant Kelly Flynn, its first female B-52 bomber pilot.

Flynn was an accomplished pilot with remarkable marksmanship, zeal and acumen. She was so brave and efficient that the world’s most powerful Air Force assigned her to fly one of the most deadly machines in its fleet.

B-52 is equipped to carry nuclear weapons and that was what 26-year-old Flynn commanded. She had everything going for her except love. She could not get a suitable husband so she had an adulterous liaison with a married man who was not legally separated from his former wife. The man’s estranged wife petitioned the Air Force and Flynn’s commanders ordered the veteran pilot to terminate the adulterous relationship.

The Bomber pilot told her commanders that they have issued her an order she cannot obey. She continued her relationship and was fired.

Like the U.S. Air Force in the case of Lt. Flynn, Nigeria’s senate has passed a law that no one will obey.

The bill lists those in essential services to include hospitals, nursing homes, airports, railways, elevators (lifts) and others that need power supply for 24 hours a day.

The minister of power would grant them the permit to operate power generating sets.

The bill has effectively emasculated Nigeria’s embattled manufacturing sector. Manufacturers are not listed among those to be granted permits to use generating sets. They would either switch to solar power or close shops.

The bill is obviously targeted at the big importers of power generating sets that are making a fortune in Nigeria and putting in nothing to improve the power sector. However, the bill is an aggression transferred to the wrong target. Without the bill, mega generator importers business would fizzle out when government generates, transmits and distributes enough power to consumers. Unfortunately, generator importers would remain in business as long as epileptic power supply persists. Any attempt to legislate them out of business would transfer the booming trade to smugglers.

Ironically, the bill has only succeeded in treating the symptom of the power failure rather than the ailment itself. Nigeria can develop its power sector without the bill.

Nigeria’s economy would collapse if the bill is signed into law. About 70 per cent of the power used in Nigeria is generated by the plants that the bill seeks to ban. When the bill knocks off 70 per cent of the power in the country, the remaining 30 per cent from public power supply would be too insignificant to run the economy.

I am convinced that the senate does not want the economy to grind to a halt. However, it has been stampeded into knocking off the system that actually runs the economy as public power supply serves only as back up.

That is why everyone is appealing to the lawmakers to spare Nigeria the embarrassment of shutting down the country’s major source of power supply at a time when government has not given due attention to solar energy as a viable source of power.

Nigerians expect the senate to pass a bill that would compel the federal government to develop solar energy to a level where a three-bedroom bungalow could be powered with solar equipment installed at an average cost of N300, 000.

A three-bedroom bungalow can get regular power with eight solar panels, eight batteries and an inverter at the cost of N1.2 million.

If that cost drops to N300, 000, many in the middle class now polluting the environment with generator noise and fumes would automatically switch to solar energy and free the public power supply for the poor and industrial consumers.

Besides, the senate must address the thorny issue of electricity tariff if the federal government insists on depending solely on public power supply generated from hydro, diesel and gas fired plants.

It will be extremely difficult to end Nigeria’s eternal darkness if consumers remain adamantly opposed to paying something close to the open market price of electricity. Power tariff in Nigeria is deceptively low.

Ironically, the cost of doing business in Nigeria is one of the highest in the world. The power generating companies (GenCos) and distribution companies (DisCos) spend more than their counterparts in other parts of the world to generate and distribute power.

We pay pittance for the expensive service rendered and in turn expect them to generate enough funds to replace ailing plants, transformers and supply lines. It simply cannot happen.

The DisCos are so impoverished by the current electricity tariff that they only manage to pay back less than 30 per cent of the cost of the power supplied them.  Consequently, the bulk supplier is heavily indebted to the GenCos. The GenCos are indebted to gas suppliers.

The debt contagion in the industry is responsible for Nigeria’s epileptic power supply. It could only be resolved if consumers are willing to pay the open market price of electricity.

I have argued repeatedly in this column that Nigeria’s electricity tariff at an average of N25 per kilowatt hour is too low. Ghana with lower cost of doing business slams the equivalent of N46.8 per kilowatt hour on obviously poorer consumers.

These are the factors that the senate must address before banning the importation and use of power generating sets.

UNI Agric Markurdi
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