Battling against power threats16 May 2013
Much needed hydropower, and other renewable energy development across Africa, could be compromised by theft and vandalism. Carole Rosenlund explains more.
Africa as a continent has tremendous electricity generation potential which is still not fully exploited. Despite energy demand exceeding supply, African countries are experiencing some positive investment activity. This is geared towards construction, development and utilisation of renewable energy resources to increase capacity so as to facilitate for quality, stable and sustainable electricity supply to its populations.
Utilities on the continent are however facing major challenges in meeting the rising demand for power with the continued theft of electricity, and vandalism of utility infrastructure. This is relentlessly hindering the uninterrupted supply of electricity that is vital for achieving development goals and economic growth. Telecommunications and transport sectors are also affected in a similar fashion.
Utility losses are incurred through vandalism of transformers, electricity line cables and accessories, encroachment on electricity line way leaves, illegal electricity connections and theft of electricity. Energy theft and vandalism of utility infrastructure are more common occurrences than most think. Both vices cost utilities and consumers billions of dollars every year in Africa and the world over.
Vandalism of utility infrastructure in this context is the criminal damage directed towards electricity structures. Damage to utility infrastructure and facilities dramatically interferes with the steady supply of electricity. This is rife and continues to affect power companies in the region which are incurring heavy costs and direct losses in the millions of dollars annually. This further cripples energy supply and economic growth and also deepens the power woes the sector is already facing. This is a major set-back for all stakeholders involved and makes it impossible to realise the vision of uninterrupted electricity supply for the continent.
The lucrative ready buyers' market (both commercial and black markets) for stolen parts and equipment especially the ferrous and non-ferrous metals are the main drivers behind continued destruction and vandalism as opposed to socio-economic issues. Utility infrastructures that are targeted by vandals are exploited for their components and parts. Cases have been reported where transformer oil is stolen and mixed with diesel to be sold on as fuel, or mixed with vegetable oil and sold on as cooking oil, also used in cosmetics or bizarrely for medical purposes. Pylons are vandalised for aluminium bars; poles are cut down and steel reinforced rods are stolen; and electrical conductors, transformer copper windings, copper and aluminium are stolen and sold on as scrap metal.
Another common contributor to vandalism related incidences is way leaves encroachment where unauthorised (permanent and semi-permanent) structures are erected within the parameters/corridors of electricity towers and transmission networks. This is especially widespread in cities and suburbs where access to land is very competitive, expensive and in short supply.
In the act of stealing components, vandals put their lives and that of others at risk. Victims are usually electrocuted to death or fatalities may occur from fires, falls at great heights or weakened structures. By damaging infrastructure, vandals:
• Cost utilities substantial repairs and maintenance expenses.
• Impact negatively on the economy and cause income loss for businesses.
• Slow down national development and affect the quality of citizens' lives.
• Disrupt the supply of electricity to vital units paralysing essential services such as national security, hospitals and medical facilities.
Investigation reports reveal that some of these acts of vandalism are executed by well-coordinated and organised criminal cartels that in some instances have strong political backing from corrupt government officials. It is also reported that some of the vandals are former and current employees with technical know-how. Rampant corruption and lack of political will causes many to believe that the vandalism cancer and trade of stolen utility components cannot be stamped out completely due to the influence and backing from these powerful government officials who are reported to protect the rogue goings-on. Tougher laws, transparency, prosecutions and political engagement need to be incorporated in the formula to curb the problems of vandalism and electricity theft at all levels.
Companies like KPLC (Kenya Power and Lighting Corporation) some years back reported the destruction of around 100 transformers a month. They have since initiated an on-going anti-vandalism national campaign branded Mulika Mwizi meaning (expose the thief/vandal) to raise public awareness of vandalism and electricity theft. Through sensitisation, members of the public are encouraged to report vandals through a toll free telephone line or by contacting the police.
The company also reports to have installed transformer alarms which send distress signals to the control centres when vandalism is suspected. In addition to this, KPLC has moved towards installing dry transformers which require specialised installation and are more expensive than conventional oil lubricated transformers. These high operating costs are then passed on to the consumer.
Across the continent, other utilities are trying to implement measure that can minimise the effects of vandalism. There have also been discussions to put in place bans on copper and aluminium exports as a measure to minimise the problem of selling scrap metal on the black market.
Revenue losses and protection
Many utilities encounter revenue fraud and protection problems associated with technical (system related) and non-technical (commercial-resulting from non-billing and wrong billing) losses which also cost utilities a great deal of money in lost revenue, lost electricity and lost time. These revenue losses are a consequence of unlawful diversions and unmetered consumptions inflicted from within utilities or by external influences, and also inefficiencies in the management of revenue systems and policies.
The industry is very aware of these challenges and shortcomings, so manufactures and utilities are working together with other partners to invent, develop and optimise solutions that will help eradicate energy diversion in the distribution network. Each unit lost effects a utility's financial position and utilities need to have mechanisms in place to identify and target consumers who do not pay for their electricity consumption. If revenue losses are considerably minimised, utilities' financial positions will inevitably improve.
Not all utility personnel are equipped to deal with the challenges of electricity theft and vandalism of utility infrastructure, yet they are required to participate actively for positive changes to be effected. Staff therefore need to be well trained and equipped.
To minimise the shortage of trained technicians, the International Centre for Hydropower in Norway will be running a training workshop on Revenue Protection Management and Vandalism at Kafue Gorge Regional Training Centre in Zambia, in July 2013. This workshop is aimed at sensitising all relevant personnel on best practices in revenue protection management as well as the effects of vandalism in terms of loss of revenue, lives and property.
This 'how-to' regional workshop, will provide tools to identify customer fraud and billing errors applicable to both large and small utilities as well modern day strategies to protect utility infrastructure against acts of vandalism. The workshop will have a focus on minimising revenue losses in utilities by providing solutions against pilfering, theft, fraud, misallocation and misappropriation of revenue as well as the education of the role players to implement effective counter measures.
Countries have implemented various types of national campaigns to tackle the issue of electricity theft. A good example is South African initiative Operation Khanyisa: a national partnership campaign that is mobilising South Africans to stand up for legal, safe and efficient electricity use Accordingly Khanyisa in Zulu means to enlighten, explain and to light up.
Sensitisation and engagement of local communities is vital in creating awareness and informing on the various aspects of electricity as a commodity, its purpose, infrastructure, consumption, preservation and risks. Dialogue and communication through these outreach programmes go a long way in stakeholders understanding each other and exercising responsible citizenship. These are critical for the success elimination of theft and vandalism in the sector.
Affected utilities lament that there is a lack of appropriate legislative framework to prosecute vandals and electricity thieves in most African countries and authorities need to police better and implement effective punitive action. Tougher laws are needed. The implementation of proactive measures to evade or intercept these vices before they are carried out will also impact positively on revenue collection.
It is therefore a strategic imperative that organisations establish revenue protection programmes as well as measures to curb vandalism. Partnerships are a key element to the success of the campaigns.
Co-operation between authorities, governments, utilities and citizens to eradicate electricity theft and vandalism is vital for the success of the sector. Investors do not want to take a gamble on a sector that is plagued by these vices because it means that project completion will be delayed and project costs will be affected as they spiral out of control through the replacement of vandalised infrastructure and equipment which is a major set-back in revenue generation.
Carole Rosenlund is a project manager at the International Centre for Hydropower in Norway. Email: Carole.Rosenlund@sintef.no