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The irresistible triumph of darkness amid a surplus of light

The irresistible triumph of darkness amid a surplus of light

Bereket Gebru 05-17-18

A few nights ago, I was writing about the rapidly growing electric power capacity of Ethiopia citing the various renewable and non-renewable energy generation projects already commissioned and others that are still under construction. I remember feeling very optimistic and proud of the major leaps in our energy capacity. I was adding up the Megawatts each of the hydro, wind and geothermal projects in the country generate when my home was suddenly engulfed with darkness but for the faint light coming out of my laptop.

My mood changed as suddenly as the status of light in my house. So, I found myself cursing the electric provider for not taking any lessons from its life time long ‘specialization’ in power interruptions. That was actually a milder reaction as I got used to such interruptions over the past week. There were interruptions every day; sometimes throughout the day and at other times twice a day with shorter spans. Then I went out to check if it was a wide area interruption or just a small section. The trend is that the wide area outage is a planned interruption and therefore there is a good chance that power will be back on within a few hours. Going out of the compound, I found some of my neighbors venting their frustrations and exchanging their thoughts. I joined in and we stayed there for over an hour discussing the plight of businesses and the sustained lack of punishment against those in charge despite exacerbation of the problem in the face of expenses to address the issue.

The issue that struck me the most from that unsolicited meeting of the neighbors was, however, the sense of helplessness of the people, the lack of concerned citizens to inquire about the situation and the negative impact it plays against efforts to draw foreign investment. So, I took it upon myself to raise the questions and get some answers from the relevant authorities.

My endeavor to raise some questions to an authority figure was quite simple. Although I have journalistic background, the simplicity of the move did not merit any professional training. I googled the Ethiopian Electric Power’s website and took the numbers for the public relations office. I called; then the PR people got me through to the Communications Directorate Director – Gebregziabher Tafere. That is an easy price to pay for your burning questions. So, I want to tell anyone who reads this article that the authorities are not really that far. We just need to exert a bit of energy and a few cents to assert ourselves as concerned citizens. Of course, that might not guarantee a quick solution to our problems.  

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So once I introduced myself and received permission by the cooperative Director to forward my queries, I asked if there is enough energy to satisfy the demand. Although I have come across the information that there is enough energy to go around, I just wanted to confirm that as the frequent happening of power outages erodes the authenticity of the claim. Gebregziabher was, on the other hand, adamant that it is not whether there is enough energy; he underscored that there is in fact a surplus of energy.  

The Director then explained that the main reason behind the power outages is the poor state of infrastructure. He noted that the wooden poles and bare wire that have been in service for numerous years are now losing the battle with time and the elements. That affects their transmission abilities and even renders them out of use. According to Gebregziabher, there are projects underway by the service giver to change the wooden poles with concrete poles and bare wires by covered ones. He also pointed out that these projects also involve other capacity building schemes.

To be honest, we have had this explanation for years. All those years could have at least been used to alleviate the problem at the heart of the capital. If the assertion is that manufacturing companies are crucial to our existing phase of development, they should have had uninterrupted power too. However, the problem is that no corner of the country or sector of the economy has rid itself of power interruptions from the replacement schemes the provider claims to have undertaken.

As Gebregziabher stated, there was a national blackout this week. He explained that these vast and rare interruptions occur because of system malfunction. Considering there was also a national blackout last year, it seems that the provider still has a lot to go before it gains the capacity to avoid such huge system failures let alone ensuring uninterrupted power supply. The Director, however, argues that the completion of the ongoing projects would play a vital role in putting power interruptions under control. In that case, we cannot wait until those projects are completed.

I also asked the Director about the strain power outages exert on businesses and if they have considered these factors in their planned outages. He responded by raising a one-line one-interruption policy they have. As the name implies, there is only one planned interruption per week on a transmission line. By limiting the number of planned interruptions to one, the service provider hopes to limit the damage such outings inflict on businesses.

That sounds like a considerate measure under the circumstances. However, we had hours long power interruptions every day of this week around my house. The Director explained that our part of the city received energy from the Sebeta sub-station where there have been some problems and went on to add that it might linger for some days. For businesses in our locality though, especially small ones, it has been a tough week as power went out the whole day at times. Barber shops, beauty shops, metal shops and other small businesses are especially suffering from the week long power interruptions.

Middle and large businesses are also victims of the power interruptions despite having generators to cope with the problem. In addition to the extra cost of running generators, some claim that their products get wasted without consistent power until they are completed. Biscuit producers, for instance, complain that the power interruptions render a batch useless as power interruptions leave them undercooked. Moreover, middle and large businesses take their inputs from small businesses that are most vulnerable to the power outages.

The other thing I asked was about the inaccessibility of the phone lines used by customers to tip malfunctions, damages and outages. Gebregziabher Tafere explained that they want customers to use 905 for their inquiries, stating that the line works 24 hours.

Power outages at least make us uncomfortable or delay our work. For a country that has set out to make itself an investment hub, though, a reputation for power interruptions is going to make the effort harder. The availability of surplus power cannot be taken as an achievement if it cannot be properly distributed to the people. Therefore, the government needs to take serious measures to eradicate this lingering problem. It might take a long time to complete a project but the progress should be there for everyone to see. After all, it is such service problems that have contributed heavily to popular frustrations and hopelessness in the quest for change.      


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