Fight it! Power theft will hit you in the pocket

Kampala – A neighbour, without my knowledge, once joined an electricity wire from his house to my meter. For the four months this subsisted, yours truly was paying an extra ugx60, 000, monthly, for power he was not using.

Utility Umeme later investigated the matter and established that the said neighbour was filching my supply. The neighbour later gloated that tapping meant he could power his plasma screen, two refrigerators and to keep two security lights on 24/7 without spending a coin!

For Samuel, a resident of Kibuli, whenever his neighbours illegally tap an overhead line, his energy saver bulbs dim.

In the six months to June 2020, Umeme registered an increase in energy losses to 17.4 per cent compared to 16.9 per cent for the same period in 2019. The rise was a result of a reduction in the number of anti-power theft drives during the COVID-19 induced lockdown.

The 3 per cent energy losses gap to the target of 14.5 per cent translated into Shs27 billion negative impact on sales, the company noted in its half year interim financial statement.

With the lockdown lifted, the utility has scaled up field operations and the monthly energy losses are starting to drop.

But what drives people to steal power?

One of the reasons advanced is that the retail tariffs, currently Shs750.9 per unit consumed by each household or the Shs301.7 for an extra-large industrial user, are ‘high’.

But that does not explain why many affluent persons or businesses will either bypass their meters or find ways of slowing the swirling discs in the meters.

As to the low-income earners who use power for just lighting one or two bulbs for about six hours and to charge a mobile phone or two, each of the first 15 units a household consumes each month comes at half the price of an egg, Shs250.

Some of the low-income households end up spending no more than Shs10,000 on power per month.

Desirable as it is to consumers, having artificially low retail tariff would mean utilities mightn’t recover the costs incurred.

The retail tariff is a function of the generation, transmission and distribution costs divided by the total units of energy multiplied by one minus the target loss factor.

If these costs are not covered in the tariff, the government might have to subsidise the sector. It happened 2005 to 2011 when as a result of a prolonged dry spell water levels in the lakes dropped, impacting on hydroelectric generation, and prompted the use of thermal power.

The government spent up to a trillion shillings over that period to keep the end-user tariffs low.

It stopped the subsidy in 2012, reasoning that the money could have been better spent on building a hydropower plant.

If the tariff is not cost-reflective, the utilities could face challenges maintaining their infrastructure. That would compromise the reliability of the system.

The second explanation advanced to rationalise power theft is the delayed connections.

Following the launch of the free Electricity Connections Policy (ECP) in November 2018, power distribution utilities were swarmed with applicants.

This put a strain on the resources, financial and material. The utilities have to pre-finance the connections and get a refund from the Rural Electrification Agency – which is in charge of the ECP, later.

The actual cost of each connection is at least $160 (Shs600,000) though applicants were paying only Shs20, 000 for inspection of their premises.

In the first year, up to 200,000 premises were connected through ECP, with Umeme making 88 per cent of the connections. However, the Memorandum of Understanding between Umeme and the Rural Electrification Agency – which is in charge of the ECP, expired, prompting Umeme to suspend connections. At the time the suspension, REA owed Umeme at least Shs84.3 billion.

But even if the connections are slow or suspended, there are power consumers who were legally connected to the grid but later bypassed their meters. Perhaps the light penalties for power theft explain the vice.

For instance, homeowners caught stealing power face a Shs0.7 million-fine while industrial users risk parting with Shs1.4m.

To address this, the revised Energy Policy recommends stiffer penalties and strict enforcement of measures against power theft and vandalism of energy infrastructure, equipment and materials.

To check commercial energy losses, Umeme is using aerial bundled cables, automated meter reading, prepay meters, meter audits and sensitising power users about the dangers of power theft. Illegal connections also increase the risk of electrocution.

Measures deployed to check the technical losses include replacing overloaded transformers, upgrading others to match the load and the use of bigger conductors to check the dissipation of power to mention but a few.

Power users should not leave it to the utilities. As the two cases mentioned at the beginning of this piece indicate, power filching can directly impact on you.

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