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Sierra Leone Needs a Comprehensive and Sustainable Energy Policy and Strategy

Abdul R Thomas
Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

21 April 2010

Sierra Leone is in desperate need of a comprehensive energy policy and strategy that will meet the demands of the country’s industrial development and economic growth, as the global recession wanes. And there is plenty of evidence that the recession is slowly ebbing.

Thus it was good news when the Vice President – Alhaji Sam Sumana met with stakeholders including industry, parliamentarians, the international community and civil society groups on Wednesday 14th April 2010, to officially launch the ‘Sierra Leone National Energy Policy and Strategic Plan’. Expectations were high, but there were disappointments.

There are reports that the launching of the country’s National Energy Policy and Strategic Plan was replete with sound bites, but lacking in substance and detail.

The government of Sierra Leone is hoping to encourage resurgence in foreign direct investments, based on its efforts at rebranding the country, with the help of Tony Blair.

Sierra Leone is being promoted as a fertile ground for industrial and business relocation and growth. Industry needs a supply of reliable and sustainable energy in order to thrive. But will the investors come soon?

Potential investors will factor Sierra Leone into their foreign investment scoping portfolio, if the country can show that it has a comprehensive strategy to develop, manage and guarantee the supply of low cost and sustainable energy.

Investors waiting to see the new National Energy Policy and Strategic Plan, unveiled by the Vice President last week, were certainly left feeling that the launch event was just another PR spin by government ministers.

With the exception of the usual appeal for international support, there were very few facts and figures in terms of current and future energy demand and supplies; or indications of the government’s investment costs and budgets. Yet the Vice President described the launch ceremony as “another milestone towards achieving the government’s agenda for change.”

The government of President Koroma has been in power long enough to quickly extricate itself from the mode of political rhetoric to the actual delivery of its Agenda for Change.

Although media coverage of the event itself was good, however, it seems that the document has been buried in a dark cloud of conspiracy of secrecy – assuming it ever existed. Not even the sympathetic APC government media have given a full coverage of what this new Energy Strategy is all about. Where are the details?

Similarly, in 2008 President Koroma launched his government’s Private Sector Development Strategy, only to be criticised for lacking in substance and realism. Two years on, the country’s private sector struggle along, as it tries to weather the recession, without any clear vision and direction from government.

Although Sierra Leone’s economic growth has in the last two years been on the decline - as with almost all other African economies, the level of economic activity and investments in key sectors – excluding mining, has significantly outgrown the available energy supplies. The National Power Authority is struggling to cope.

The country’s capital – Freetown, is heavily dependent upon Bumbuna for the majority of its energy supply. The plant which was commissioned just a few months ago, is not meeting its planned 50 MW electricity capacity, due to technical difficulties.

Plans to increase the availability of electricity, the Vice President said; are now hinged on the development of 27 smaller hydro-power dams, harnessing the nation’s rivers, which scientists say are slowly drying up. But this over-reliance on a single energy source is highly risky, unsustainable and environmentally challenging.

The irony is that although Sierra Leone boasts of being one of the wettest countries in Africa, rainfall is now becoming ever more unreliable – with a dry season that is much more intense and longer lasting. This climate change phenomenon makes an energy policy based on hydro, to be less secure and unsustainable.

The government of Japan and the World Bank have all chipped in, in support of the government’s need to increase electricity supply in the capital, by investing in the existing thermal power plants located at Kingtom and Blackhall Road.

But the cost of replacing the old power transmission lines and extending supplies to newly built suburbs is growing, and sources within the government are worried at the effect this increasing cost is having on spending across other departments.

Energy experts believe that Sierra Leone should be looking at a mixed portfolio of sustainable energy sources, such as wind, solar, biomass, wave and tidal power – all of which, are potentially in abundance across the country.

Sierra Leone cannot afford to cherry pick and prioritise those energy sources that are currently being supported by the international community. The government must be innovative in its response to the call for a realistic National Energy Policy and Strategic Plan.

Sierra Leone’s mining industry alone needs over 900 MW of electricity, once the two main mining companies – London Mining Ltd and African Minerals start operations by the end of this year. The rest of the country’s economy would require a minimum of 500 MW to function fairly efficiently, if the economy is to grow from the current 4% to 10% by 2015.

What is needed now is a comprehensive National Energy Policy and Strategic Plan, that clearly spells out the government’s intention and commitment in meeting this economic demand, focussing on the wider range of sustainable sources of energy – especially, wind, biomass and tidal power.

The Vice President’s announcement of building 27 new hydro-dams in Sierra Leone is simply not sustainable. Nor will the absence of a realistic, quantifiable and properly costed National Energy Policy and Strategic Plan, gain the confidence of potential investors. Innovative and clear thinking is much needed.

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