The truth about blackouts


Power blackouts have become emotive, causing an inconvenience to society and businesses.

We are entitled to complain when things go wrong, but there is a danger that we may over-sensationalise the problem without understanding the fundamental causes.

The problem of power blackouts is a reflection of lack of diversification and inadequate investment.

Electricity Generation Company  (Egenco) and Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) say the power outages are due to low water levels in the Shire River due to inadequate rainfall associated with climate change.

The problem here is very clear. As a nation, we have put all our eggs in one basket and relied almost wholly on  hydropower.

To make matters worse, the Shire River is essentially the only driver of power in the country. With the persistent weather and climate shocks, we have found ourselves on the black end of things.

The National Energy Policy of 2003 outlines a number of sources of power, including water, wind, solar, coal and nuclear.

Indisputably, this is in recognition of the need for diversification of the power base. This is echoed by the literature around the Millennium Challenge Compact.

The works that are currently underway at Kammwamba to build a coal-fired plant is the long-term solution to our energy problems.

When President Arthur Peter Mutharika met Escom  Egenco boards and management at Umoyo House in Blantyre, he was quoted as having demanded short -term solutions to the energy problem.

He is perfectly right. While there is talk of diesel-driven generators as one of the solutions, this is indeed only short term and the high cost of diesel is not sustainable in the long run.

The long-term solution is what government is doing at Kammwamba.

But we all need to understand that such projects usually take time. The short-term measures are important, and form part of the business strategy.

Things still need to function while we implement long-term solutions.

Besides lack of diversification, there has been the problem of inadequate investment.

Currently, Escom generates just about 351 megawatts and this is not enough to meet the national requirement.

As a result, the corporation has to ration power through load shedding. We may hate the blackouts, but we may have to live with it until we increase our generation capacity.

We may keep pointing fingers at each other but the truth behind the power blackouts is that, as a country, we have over time not made enough investment in energy.

After 53 years of independence, we are still generating less than the national requirement and almost wholly dependent on the Shire.

While the national power generation increased with the commissioning in 2012 of Kapichira Phase II, this did not make much difference. It was still hydro-driven.

As a country, we have long needed a major investment in energy, which other commentators say happened only 40 years ago.

Therefore, I do not think it is unfair to say that this government has only found itself in an mess because the country did not adequately address power gaps in the past.

The beauty, though, is that government, as is expected, is not on the defensive.

It has taken full responsibility.

Bringing in an estimated initial 300 megawatts, the coal-fired plant at Kam’mwamba will most likely be seismic. It will not only diversify the power base, but also increase national energy output.

This, coupled with the interconnection with the neighbouring countries should not only see an end to blackouts but also make a mega difference to our energy levels.  Currently, less than 12 percent of Malawians have access to electricity.

Most people in the rural areas are faced with a paradox.

Power lines pass just above their heads, yet access to power is as remote as the horizon. n

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