Addressing Challenge of National Electricity Grid Collapse

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Adefemi  Babarinde
Much has been said and written about Nigeria’s myriad of problems, not least, infrastructure challenges. But one challenge which trumps all is that of irregular electricity supply, caused by the frequent collapse of the national electricity grid.According to data from the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN), the national grid has collapsed 108 times since the power sector was privatised in November 2013. In the last 12 years, Nigeria has experienced 146 total national grid collapses and 73 partial collapses, regularly resulting in widespread blackouts.Between late February and March 2022, electricity generation in Nigeria has been erratic due to gas constraints at some of Nigeria’s thermal power generation plants as well as low water levels at the country’s four hydro power plants. This has impacted national power output. So far, the national grid has collapsed six times during this period, resulting in prolonged power outages in some parts of the country.Power outages, which prevent people from meeting routine business and household needs, result in enormous economic and social costs. Experts believe that without diversifying Nigeria’s electricity mix and improving efficiency, the current grid network would not be able to meet the electricity demand for Nigeria’s growing population. A World Bank-sponsored report in 2021 showed that 85 million Nigerians are not connected to the grid, and that Nigeria loses about $29 billion annually due to erratic power supply. This is a significant sum of money which could be used to improve the economy and enhance living conditions.Grid collapses can be attributed to several factors, such as theft and vandalism of grid equipment, unreliable gas supply at thermal power plants, low water levels at hydropower plants, old and weak national grid infrastructure and load rejection, among others.The latest grid collapse which occurred on 8 April 2022 was as a result of vandalism of the strategic transmission line at Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom State. This led to the national power grid plunging from 2,400 megawatts (MW) some 30 minutes earlier to zero, causing a widespread outage. In his statement about the incident, the Honourable Minister of Power, Alhaji Aliyu Abubakar, stated that vandals were responsible. According to Abubakar, “Further to our earlier press release, we wish to apprise the general public that the immediate cause of the national blackout (system collapse) was an act of vandalism on a transmission tower on the Odukpani — Ikot Ekpene 330kV double circuit transmission line thus resulting in a sudden loss of about 400MW of generation. This consequently led to a cascade of plants shut down across the country.”Before the latest grid collapse, the TCN reported that it lost one of its 330KV transmission lines from Sapele to Ughelli, Delta State and 12 towers along the route to fire. TCN’s General Manager in charge of Public Affairs, Seun Olagunju, said that the fire was caused by a petrol tanker which was involved in an accident near the transmission station.In another incident which caused disruption to the grid, the TCN said that it discovered the hacking of a tower on the 132KV Enugu to Benue transmission line. Fortunately, the line was immediately fixed to avoid a system collapse on that route.  The government has a critical role to play in addressing the frequent collapse of the grid. Currently, the national transmission grid is owned and managed by the government through the TCN. The government needs to invest in modern technology for surveillance and monitoring of the grid and to safeguard it against vandalism.Another cause of grid collapse which the government can help to fix is low power generation. Many thermal power plants are either not generating to capacity or not generating at all due to gas constraint problems caused by the huge debt owed to gas suppliers by the electricity generating companies.Recently, the Executive Secretary of the Association of Power Generation Companies (APGC), Dr Joy Ogaji, said that the generation companies are owed over N1.6 trillion by the Nigeria Bulk Electricity Trading Plc (NBET) and that the debt is impeding their operations including payment for gas supplied to their plants. “Currently, the unpaid available capacity charge which we’re owed by NBET is N1.644.15 trillion,” Dr Ogaji said in a recent statement.The liquidity challenge in the power value chain can be addressed through the prompt payment of debt owed to the electricity generation companies and gas supply companies. Prompt payment to gas suppliers would serve to encourage investment in the domestic gas market and help to ensure uninterrupted supply to the market. A good example of a company that has heavily invested in the Nigerian domestic gas market is Savannah Energy, the British independent energy company focused around the delivery of projects that matter in Africa. Savannah’s subsidiary, Accugas, is a reliable supplier of gas enabling over 10 per cent of Nigeria’s thermal power generation. In fact, Accugas has an impeccable record of never having missed a gas nomination from any of its offtakers since it first commenced supplying gas in 2013. Since 2014, the company has invested approximately US$1.6 billion in gas processing and transportation infrastructure to support the domestic Nigerian market via its world class nameplate 200mmscfd Uquo gas processing facility and 260km pipeline infrastructure with the capacity to transport approximately 540mmscfd and take on additional customers within the region. Accugas is the sole supplier of gas to one of Nigeria’s largest and most strategic thermal power generating plants, the Odukpani power plant in Cross River State owned by the Niger Delta Power Holding Company (NDPHC), as well as Ibom Power Company (“IPC”) owned by the Akwa Ibom State Government. Accugas also began supplying gas to First Independent Power Limited’s (FIPL) Afam plant in Rivers State in October 2021. Testament to the reliability of this supply, is FIPL’s (part of the Sahara Power Group), recent decision to almost double its gas supply contract with Accugas to up 65 Mmscfd, extending gas supply coverage to two of its other power stations in the region, Eleme and Trans Amadi. This now means that Accugas is supplying a total generation capacity of 391 MW with FIPL’s three plants in Rivers State. For Nigeria to sustainably develop its economy, the power challenge issue, particularly the frequent collapse of the national grid, must be resolved. The government has an important role to play in solving this problem by improving the business environment for investment. The Accugas success story needs to be replicated by creating a conducive environment which attracts investors and guarantees a reasonable rate of return on investments.
*Babarinde, an energy consultant, wrote from Lagos.