Contending with yet another season of power rationing

Thursday November 25 2021
power pic
By Charles Makakala

The amount of solar energy reaching the earth every hour is more than enough to meet the world’s energy needs for a whole year.

They say that a fact like that should make us review everything that we know about life. For example, we talk of energy scarcity, but here is an abundant source of energy that will continue to deliver for at least 5 billion years. So, what scarcity? Similarly, we talk of global warming, but here is clean energy that can be harnessed to save the planet. So, it is all about the poor choices that we, humans, make.

Speaking of poor choices, there is one East African nation where you can always find them in abundance. There you have 60 million people who cut down 250,000 acres of forests every year to get firewood and charcoal, which they depend on for up to 85 percent of their energy needs. The women here have a folksy wisdom saying “(wherever you are, whatever you do), always pick a stick (as firewood)”. Such is the life of the downtrodden of the earth.

These people spend hundreds of millions of dollars to import petroleum products for a further 9 percent of their energy consumption, one of their biggest imports as a nation. But there is little that they can do. These people love their second-hand vehicles and their diesel generators. And who can blame them? It’s not like they have any real alternatives and stuff, do they? So, they revel in these items, which display their newly acquired middle-class status. God bless them.

All that these people expect their political masters to do is deliver nary 4.5 percent of their total energy demand through electricity. Yet, in this country, it is another power rationing season! Apparently, 4.5 percent is too much to ask for.

This is the not-so-united republic, the mighty Julius Nyerere’s towering invention, a nation where 60 years after the imagined ghosts of the British colonialists were exorcised, the powers that be have used their so-called independence to communicate that it is physically impossible to generate enough power for energy sustainability in the country, come rain come or shine (pun intended).

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And it’s not like the people are wasters of energy or something, quite the contrary.

Years back, when residents of Ruangwa District in Lindi Region heard about rural electrification, they turned out in huge numbers, and the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) could barely cope. Many could not be connected. One would assume that their enthusiasm meant that they had so much to use electricity for. Hardly. Like many in towns and villages in this country, they only purposed to use it to light their houses for a few hours a night and charge their mobile phones.

This is the trend across the nation. Electricity usage is mostly domestic in nature. The lucky ones in urban areas use it to power their tellies and possibly their fridges too. But all this adds up to a paltry 103KWh per capita of electric energy consumption per year, leaving the nation languishing in the bottom ten nations in such rankings worldwide, behind even war-ravaged DRC.

But, why, given that this is a nation that is so rich resource-wise?

In terms of hydropower, the nation is blessed with resources that can potentially generate over 38,000MW. That is, at least 25 times what the nation produces today. Currently, only 600MW of energy is produced by all the dams in Tanzania. While there are moves to increase that figure, including through the 2,100MW Nyerere Dam, which is under construction, given how far the nation is from its target of 5,000MW by 2020, and that of 10,000MW by 2025, leaders’ strategy appears to be to do as little as they can possibly get away with.

But they have many options for power generation if they cared. The coal reserves of about 5 billion tonnes can serve the nation for the next 100 years. Known geothermal energy sources too can provide about four times the current demand for decades to come. Kenyans up north have been generating more than what we get from all hydropower projects combined from this source alone. Yet another opportunity tossed aside.

There are solar and wind solutions too. I am quite cynical about using these solutions for strategic purposes, but they can serve the purpose for small isolated communities, say, islands, for now. That said, the enormous bureaucratic challenges that investors face in providing these solutions simply reveal that the nation doesn’t want change. Someone surely wants Tanzanians to remain energy-poor.

If you consider that the US state of Texas generates 60 times what Tanzania does today, that the average Texan enjoys in three days what Tanzanians use in a year, and how that difference is reflected in the quality of people’s lives, it makes you sad to remember that 4.5 percent figure. That’s all that people expect.

African leaders often get away with murder. Experience has made them excellent at deceiving their way through their tenures. These are our messiahs. They come promising heaven, but often leave the people worse than they were before. Regrettably, our nations are destined never to rise above the whims of these leaders, however petty and ignoble.

But there are certain things that often expose them – and those are the ultimate indicators of their performance in office. The state of the energy industry is one of them. It is all physics. You can’t play politics with physics.

Africa doesn’t need messiahs. All it needs are leaders who actually lead.