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Sierra Leone’s private sector rushes to fill the void as dam disappoints

By Kimberly S. Johnson in Freetown
Posted on Wednesday, 11 September 2013 15:56

With an uptick in commercial and residential construction, tourism, agriculture and mining activities, Sierra Leone needs more electricity.

The National Power Authority (NPA) has a maximum capacity of 85MW, but probably generates only a fraction of that.

Electricity remains erratic in many residential areas of Freetown, and a dilapidated national grid often fails to deliver.

The challenge is coordinating investors so there is a coherent energy strategy

The first phase of the government’s much-heralded Bumbuna Dam has been riddled with problems since it opened in 2009.

The damand corresponding plant have a maximum capacity of 50MW, but it is barely producing 25MW.

Energy minister Oluniyi Robbin-Coker announced that the government would not renew Italian company Salini Costruttori’s main- tenance contract for Bumbuna, which expired at the end of May.

No quick fixes

“We all know the constraints in Sierra Leone,” says Kofie Macauley, chief executive of Sewa Energy Resources, a local company aiming to build a 25MW hydroelectric plant in the southern region.

“Right now, if there were 1,000MW, the country would use it,” he says. Macauley estimates that only 90MW are being generated in total, taking public and private projects together.

Various new projects are underway but will take years to come online.

Sewa’s goal is to serve the mining industry, particularly Amara Mining.

Its $100m hydro-electric plant is expected to go online in 2016 when Amara enters the production phase of its Baomahun gold-mining project.

Sewa has agreed to sell power to Amara. “We have pinpointed mining companies in that area who are desperate for energy,” Macauley says.

“We’ll ensure that we satisfy the mining company fully and then surrounding villages and then the grid.”

While mining companies may turn to the private sector, residents and other businesses look to the NPA.

Perhaps the most significant project is the second phase of the Bumbuna hydroelectric dam.

Joule Africa, a UK-based company, is developing the $750m project, which is expected to generate an additional 202MW through a new dam and plant.

Joule is privately financing Bumbuna Phase II as an independent power project and is seeking to sell power to the government.

The government announced the deal in June 2011, and the company is currently negotiating a power purchase agreement, says Joule Africa chief executive Andrew Cavaghan.

Still, Bumbuna Phase II will not be complete until at least 2017, as construction is set to be- gin in 2014.

Coherent strategy

Addax Bioenergy plans to generate steam energy as a by-product of ethanol production from sugarcane.

Of the 32MW produced via steam turbines from the burning of sugarcane fibres, Addax intends to sell about 15MW to the national grid, explains general manager John Moult.

The plant will not be commissioned until the end of the year.

The energy ministry is exploring options, Cavaghan explains. “I think there’s increasing momentum in various parts of the sector. The challenge is coordinating investors so there is a coherent energy strategy.” One issue is cost.

If the government is looking for emergency power supplies, this implies emergency spending.

Government funds are low, and investors with short-term solutions may have difficulty collecting payment from a cash-strapped government.

Some donors and international financial institutions have focused on electricity infrastructure.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency provided the Sierra Leonean government with a $14m grant in late May to install distribution lines in the capital and to rehabilitate existing networks.

The African Development Bank is due to discuss a financing deal in September for a high-voltage interconnection project that would link Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. ●

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