Umeme lauds government policy on power thieves

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Selestino Babungi, the Umeme managing director, said he was glad that the government had heeded to the utility’s call to help fight the vice, which he said was pulling down progress in infrastructure improvement.

Umeme workers unearth illegally connected electricity wires in Bulambuli district recently

Power distributor, Umeme, has applauded Government for the recent commitment to fight vandalism and illegal connections in the energy sector, saying it will help reduce energy losses.

During his 2018/19 budget speech, Finance Minister Matia Kasaija said government will enforce actions against vandalism and illegal connections in the energy sector.

Kasaija also committed to prioritising the expansion of the transmission and distribution networks to industrial zones and rural growth centres to support the government ambitious industrialisation programme.

Network efforts Government also plans to replace parts of the dilapidated network, which accounts for about 30% of power losses across the sector. Umeme’s losses declined to 17.2% in 2017 from 19% in 2016, while its customer base closed at 1,125,291 in 2017 from 950,000 in 2016.

Selestino Babungi, the Umeme managing director, said he was glad that the government had heeded to the utility’s call to help fight the vice, which he said was pulling down progress in infrastructure improvement. “Vandalism and power thefts are a national problem, which amounts to an economic crime. Vandalism does not only affect Umeme, but the telecoms, industries, local governments and causes frustration to our customers through prolonged power outages, caused by the criminals,” Babungi explained.

He added: “We thank the Uganda Police for the support to Umeme in investigating and dealing with these crimes, but urge Government to holistically address the underlying problem across the affected sectors through deterrent legislation.”

Special court Because of the magnitude of the problem, which includes rampant deaths, the Judiciary last year, launched the Standard Utilities and Wildlife Court, a specialised court to deal with vandalism and theft cases dedicated to Umeme lauds government policy on power thieves

the utilities sector. Babungi lauded the Chief Justice and the Judiciary for creating a court dedicated to the utilities sector, saying Umeme has previously faced challenges with prosecutions in diverse courts some of which did not appear to appreciate the urgency required to set an example or the nature of the offence.

He said the introduction of the utilities court will help create public awareness of the offences, assist in the expeditious prosecution of offenders, curb power theft, improve collections for the good of the economy and ultimately help lower the end-user tariff. Babungi noted that the continued theft and vandalism of the electricity infrastructure was costing the sector a lot. On average, Umeme loses an estimated sh100b annually in power theft and vandalism.

“Instead of spending on increasing access and refurbishing the network, we inject the would be capital in infrastructure replacement. If we injected all the money we spend on replacing vandalised transformers into the network, our supply reliability will be next to none,” Babungi, said. A 1% energy loss reduction translates into about sh10b in saving. Despite the huge loss to the economy, the current Electricity Act, 1999, is not deterrent enough to curb the vice.

Kalist Okello, the Umeme integrity manager, explained that the penalties for power theft and illegal connections in Uganda range from caution, community service, to maximum of sh2m fine or a three-year jail sentence. However, in addition to being a less severe penalty, no one has ever been convicted to three years because of the grave loopholes in the general court process.

“The laws have to change to make it a deterrent; Kenya has done it; power thieves cough up to Ksh1m in fines to cover for the stolen electricity and are jailed for up to 10 years,” Okello said. However, despite all the achievements, power thefts, illegal connections and vandalism, remain a huge challenge to the giant utility. These take the form of meter tampering, meter bypass, creation of illegal lines, tampering with transformers and building in wayleaves.

The biggest victims of these illegal acts are usually innocent members of the public, legitimate consumers of electricity who have to make do with prolonged outages due to vandalism of the network, who have lost their lives or property as a result of power theft. Power thieves also steal from the legitimate electricity consumers since the power they steal is paid for by legitimate electricity consumers.

Strict penalties This dishonest use of electricity has been identified as a crime under the Electricity Act of 1999. The Government has recognised this vice as an economic crime and the Electricity (Amendment) Bill seeks to include stricter penalties for power thieves.

Okello says it is time to speak out and watch over your neighbour’s activities since they can directly impact on your electricity supply reliability, the tariffs and more importantly your safety. “Truth is you cannot have a reliable and safe power supply or lower tariffs when your neighbours are stealing power and vandalizing the distribution infrastructure,” he says.

“Even though Umeme’s investment in the network has showed tangible results, improved public safety and reduced power theft, we still have many incidents of power theft and vandalism,” Mr Okello explains. For the last five years, the Ministry of Energy has been working to amend the Electricity Act of umeme 1999 to provide punitive punishments against illegal connections and reduce power losses.

The Director Energy Resources in the Ministry of Energy James Banaabe acknowledged that the Act is being fine-tuned to prescribe stiffer penalties for power theft to check power theft and vandalism. He explained that a cabinet memo has been prepared with additional principles and awaiting the minister’s approval before it goes to the Cabinet.

Once Cabinet approves the additional principles, Banaabe said, a draft bill will be printed for presentation to Parliament in preparation for approval. He said the amendments have taken so long because the Ministry had to get clearance from every stakeholder including the Ministry of Finance, which he said took the longest time because of financial implication in the proposals which had to be approved.

Vandalism is also affecting the Uganda Electricity Transmission Company, Uganda National Roads Authority, telecoms and local government councils billions of shillings.  Kasaija said over the years, the Government has invested heavily in power generation, leading to an increase in both energy access and the energy mix for household use in lighting. “The results show that more Ugandan households are using modern sources of energy for lighting and cooking than was the case four years ago. Twenty-two percent of households were using grid electricity for lighting in 2016/17 financial year compared to 14% in 2012/13,” Kasaija said.

The Umeme annual report for 2017 shows that the share of electricity accounted for by industrial and domestic use remains unchanged 65% and 23%, respectively. Nearly one in five households (18%) use solar energy for lighting.

However, there were significant inequalities in electrification levels across sub regions. Kampala has the highest number of households using grid electricity for lighting (86%) while Karamoja has the least (1% percent). However, Umeme’s licence does not cover Karamoja, West Nile and other remote parts of the country.

NewVision.co.ug

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