Momoh: We are Eliminating Estimated Billing

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Prof. James Momoh is the Chairman, Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission. In this interview during a courtesy visit by some top officials of the Commission to the corporate headquarters of THISDAY, he spoke on efforts by his agency to address some of the challenges in the power sector. Martins Ifijeh provides the excerpts:

What should Nigerians do when DISCO officials cut them off power supply without any reason. Can they go to court?

While customers have the right to go to court, I will say it depends on the type of customer. This is because we have three categories of them. There are customers who have money and pay for electricity in Nigeria, there are those who do not have money and they cannot pay. Then there is a third category that has money but does not want to pay for power. So, we are mostly dealing with customers who use electricity and are willing to pay and the challenge is that they are not getting the services commensurate to what they deserve. Such customers have the right to complain. We have Discos who provide the services to our customers. What happens is that sometimes, they don’t bill the customers on time and sometimes because of lack of metres, they do a lot of estimated billing, which the customer may not like and which may also be wrong. And sometimes, there may be other logistics problems.

Who should consumers complain to?

The first thing is to complain to the service provider, who ideally should address the complaint. But if such complain is not taken seriously or the customer is not satisfied, it can then be addressed to the Nigeria Electricity Regulations Commission (NERC). NERC is the last resort. Fortunately for everyone, we have created a forum office. Recently, we opened one in Abuja, and we plan to have them across the country. The office is now the liaison between the customer and NERC.  Once consumers are not satisfied with providers and they contact the forum office, they will try to resolve it, but if that fails, NERC can be resorted to for justice. Justice will mean doing what the law says. It is in this regard we think consumers’ and DISCOs’ interest is being protected. We have in times past said ‘go fix their transformer, go fix their circuit breaker’, and in other cases we have had to give ultimatum for certain things to be done. Customers have right to power, because we are protecting both the Discos and the customers and on several occasions, we have been able to reconcile both the customers and the Discos, to the extent that we have severally ordered the Discos to go and provide power to its customers. Sometimes, in recent months, I even had to make an order where I gave the Discos certain number of days to restore power in some areas. So, we have oversight over the Discos, Gencos and the Transmission Company of Nigeria, in terms of making sure that they abide by their terms of reference, their licence conditions. So, whereas we have the mandate to execute our laws, we also have the human face to try to try to reconcile these two different groups. So, in a nutshell, customers have rights. After all, it is their right from birth; remember God said let there be light. So, because it has to be paid for, so, it has to be generated, it has to be transmitted and distributed. Sometimes, when one of our supply chain is broken, we have the challenge of fixing it.

Why do Nigerians still experience electrocution when such is no longer happening in many countries, and what is the commission doing to address it?

I am the number one safety officer of the commission. I practised this job as a young engineer; I did not just become the chairman overnight. I climbed poles, worked around sub-stations, got my hands wet and my feet dirty. You may say I am a professor of mathematics and power, but I am a practical expert of power who understands this. Power system is vulnerable to attack everywhere in the world, whether US, UK or Germany, because huge energy is passing through the wires, and this energy is deadly. When you touch a live wire, electrons will go through your body, and the body will conduct it very quickly and the next thing will be the destruction of the arteries, destroy the bones and other biological system. So, in Nigeria, Europe or America, electrons are the same. They do the same thing all over the world. So, if somebody is careless and touches a live wire, the person would be dead. Secondly, even when the system is so vulnerable and volatile, if you don’t protect it, then it is going to blow up and we may just lose millions of investments and lives.  As a result of this, first lesson we learnt in Power Engineering 101, is the concept of safety. In fact, when we go to a power laboratory, the first thing we teach our students is adherence to safety. Wearing your gloves, wear your overall, using your glasses, and making sure you put one hand at the back while one is put at the front. You don’t use your two hands to touch a life wire. So, we teach that first. When I worked in the laboratory as a power professor, I had to be conscious because safety is a requirement in the power sector anywhere in the world. That is in the sense of safety as a prerequisite of running the power sector anywhere in the world. However, if a Disco, a Genco or a transmission company does not take care of the safety of its people, its customers or citizens, that means we may have broken wires. If Nigerians see two broken wires on the ground, they should not touch them because they could be live wires and are deadly. Customers should not play with electric wires lying on the ground. It can only be de-energised remotely. This is a common issue all over the world and there are procedures, processes and caution, that are given all over the world in terms of safety. Safety is not only of human; safety of the apparatus is also important.  So, we have designed a lot of things in case of emergency and these are protection devices that would de-energise the wire from the supply so that we can have one region of the power still safe and the other de-energised, but unconnected. So, we have protection devices. If the protection fails and you go there and think it is de-energised, you will get into trouble. So, we also have warning signals that shows; ‘this is high voltage, do not touch, be careful’. If you do opposite, you will be in trouble. The worst part is that If one person touches such live wire and you think you are safe and some come to assist the person without de-energising the wire, if another person touches the person, the energy will conduct to that person and as many people they touch, would be affected, except the wires touching the person is de-energised. As a young man then in Lagos who loved his work, I remember I was holding instruments that were not properly insulated, and the next thing I knew, I was already conducting and I was holding instruments that were not properly insulated. The human being is a power system. Electrons flow and it goes to all parts of the body. The artery of my body, the brain and all parts of my body. Lucky for me, there were senior engineers there who used a wood to knock the plier off my hands and I found myself on the floor. So, I would have been dead. So, I committed myself to this job, but I told myself that I would learn everything about safety. So, this is the truth. I am so sorry on behalf of our commission and the Discos over those that died by electrocution. Our regulation is in place for safety and we have passed safety regulations. We understand how electrocution works; hence we have put in place regulations for safety. We would be enforcing safety and I would become not only the CEO, but also the safety officer and chief inspecting general, that would send people out in the field to ensure that safety procedures and, maintenance are adhered to. So, safety comes first in our regulation. Safety saves lives.

Many Nigerians are paying for power they are not using. Those who have prepaid meters pay relatively very low compared to those without it. How do you save Nigerians from this exploitation?

Estimated billing is not what we recommend at NERC, but it has been there before we came on board. We have reviewed the issue of estimated billing and we are eliminating it. But for that to happen, we are creating a technology called Meter Asset Provider (MAP). This will allow new businesses for meter manufacturing in Nigeria, meter installation, and meter merchandising, which of course mean customers who want power can go to any store, not to the DISCOs anymore and buy their own meter. That will ensure it is the power used that is being paid for.  So, that is ongoing at the commission. We have received over 100 letters of no objection from those who want to be involved in that franchise business. This will bridge the metering gap currently existing in the country. Currently, DISCOs do not have the resources to meter every house. Recognising that, we took it upon ourselves to also contribute to the solution space. So this is a sure way to addressing issues around it.

But why are the power companies hoarding meters?

That will be a thing of the past. To move forward, I am saying our duty is not just to put rules on paper and there is no strategy to encourage the enforcement. We can’t say don’t hoard meters when we have not put strategies in place to stop it and enforce the right thing. So to be sure of enforcement, we said let us open the market for new meter providers. If you have access to meter, it means it is no longer a meter challenge. Once that is solved, Nigerians will now know how to manage the energy they consume. I use a prepaid meter in my home. For two weeks I know what it cost me. I know what to turn off when going to bed. Every customer will then be energy wise once they have meters, so it is a win-win situation. By the end of this month (October), our deadline for opening all bids would have been done. Those who are qualified through the no objection qualification will go to particular disco of their choice and get their details published by that Disco. Soon, you will start seeing announcements of people selling meters. That would help everybody because the Discos are looking forward to a lot. That is because that burden of extra cost, overhead cost, worrying about raising capital to buy meter for all its customers would be over. Customers should also be aware, that if they are residential customers, there is a class of billing that the Discos are supposed to charge you. If you are a commercial customer, you are in a different class and therefore your billing would be different. And residential customers are in a different class. And therefore their billings are different. For instance, when I moved to Abuja, I realised I was paying too much for light, but I didn’t call DISCO. I didn’t run to NERC. What I did was go check my meter and I realised I was on commercial class (C Class). So, lucky for me, I called an engineering colleague and told him, he then helped me get on to the residential category. I then called my neighbours and told them to go change theirs to ‘R class’, So Nigerians can do the same.

How do we address capping issues in Nigeria?

We realised that the capping issue is not working, so we have just written a position paper which will be announced and available to DISCOs and customers. Within the next three months, we will be able to say this is the total amount you can charge someone with four bedrooms, or rooms in ‘face me I face you’ houses. We will make sure everybody is aware that this is what should be charged. Anything above that, customers should raise their flag and call me or any of our commissioners. And if customers have questions, they are free to contribute to the discussion. We would take advantage of their concerns about capping going forward, so that within the next three months, we should know the total amount that can be charged by the Discos on this. So, going forward, nobody would be cheated. Our first regulatory requirement is that we are governed by law and they call it a quasi-judiciary responsibility they gave us. We would make sure we are always within the law when we talk and when we act, so that customers are protected and the Discos too are fairly treated. This is because at the end of the day, we need the Discos’ business. If I don’t have the Discos to buy my power, what am I going to regulate?

Are you planning to increase tariff?

There is a plan to do cost reflective tariff, but we will not do it by fiat or by just waking up one day to say the rate will change by 10 per cent or so. Before then, we hope the issue of metering will be resolved, because we can’t increase tariff without justification. If you are being charged for black out or erroneous billing, the rate will just be unacceptable.

All these will give us the benchmark to say since we have improved efficiency, and losses have been reduced, and that there is better quality of service and 247 electricity. When all these are in place, Nigerians will be willing to pay. We don’t want both customers and DISCOs to be ripped off. We don’t want to also hear that DISCOs buy a product for five naira and sell it for two naira, it will not make sense. That is why we are having a human face to everything. We will make sure everybody is happy. The rate increase is conditional; efficiency and performance has to be higher. So we cannot increase tariff while efficiency is down. I can’t defend that.

Under president Buhari, we have been charged to make sure we do the right thing. We will not give tariff increase to the point customers will be mad with me. We will do what will make everyone happy at the end of the day.