Making the case for a just energy transition in Uganda

Friday April 27 2018


By Diana Nabiruma

Three noteworthy events took place in mid-April that call for a discussion on the need for a just energy transition in Uganda. In this transition, clean, accessible, affordable and reliable energy sources such as solar should be promoted over expensive and dirty energy sources that harm citizens, especially women and the environment.

What are these events? On April 12, the media reported that power supply to Tororo Regional Hospital Referral Hospital had been cut by Umeme. This was due to an unpaid bill of more than Shs269 million. On Thursday April 19, the media also reported that despite clear evidence that Uganda’s power is unaffordable and in spite of loud and urgent public protestations against the expensive power, electricity tariffs will remain high.

It was reported that the executive director of the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), Ziria Tibalwa, said low consumptive power, which is interestingly caused by high power tariffs, and expensive capital investments that the President has questioned, will keep the tariff high.

While the pronouncement that electricity tariffs would remain high was being made, a group of 14 civil society actors promoting a just energy transition from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria and the Netherlands visited Gronigen in the Netherlands. The visit took place on April 19. Gronigen is home of the largest natural gas field in Europe. The field, which contained 2.8 billion cubic metres of gas at the commencement of natural gas production in the Netherlands in 1963, is also one of the largest natural gas fields in the world.

What have the high electricity tariffs in Uganda, the power supply cut to the 226-bed Tororo hospital and the visit to Gronigen got to do with each other? A lot! How so?

Uganda has heavily invested in an energy system that does not meet the needs of its citizens. For this reason, we see that despite injection of billions of dollars in the electricity sector, nearly 80 per cent of Ugandans have no access to electricity. Even those who have access are consistently struggling to pay hefty power bills. Tororo hospital exemplifies the struggle institutions and citizens face to pay for power.

While Ugandans struggle, power utilities earn high returns on investments on their investments - as high as 20 per cent for Umeme. This energy system is unjust and needs to be changed to create a system that meets the energy needs of all citizens without them needing to break the bank.

As in Uganda, communities in the Niger Delta in Nigeria and in Gronigen are suffering from the impacts of an unjust energy system that burdens them with the political, economic and social consequences of oil and gas exploitation such as political strife, economic disempowerment or loss of economic opportunities, family breakdowns and others while conferring on corporate entities engaged in oil exploitation profits.

As earlier noted, gas extraction activities take place in Gronigen in the Netherlands. While it is true that the gas extracted from the field meets the energy needs of 90 per cent of Dutch homes and proceeds made from the sale of gas to countries such as Belgium, France and Germany has conferred on the Dutch nationals many benefits, the negative effects of gas mining have hurt the residents of Gronigen.Due to gas extraction, earthquakes that have destroyed property, lowered property values, caused anger and caused stress have been documented in Gronigen since 1986.

Following a stronger-than-usual earthquake in 2012, the Dutch government commissioned 15 studies that linked the earthquakes to the gas mining activities. Consequently, the Dutch government reduced gas extraction and this year, it announced that gas extraction in Gronigen will end in 2030. The gas exploitation consortium of Shell, Exxonmobil and the Dutch government called NAM that is engaged in the gas extraction activities, is supposed to compensate households whose property was destroyed because of the gas extraction-induced earthquakes. However, it has played ping-pong with the claimants.

In some instances, it has told some property owners that it is not responsible for the damage to their houses and has refused to compensate them. In others, it has offered low compensation. Court processes ensuing from the above failings are long and expensive. Anyone who is familiar with compensation processes for land acquisitions for oil sector and indeed other projects in Uganda is well aware that Ugandan citizens too suffer from unfair, delayed and under-compensation.

Promoters of a just energy transition, therefore, want the failure by governments and corporate entities to invest in clean energy sources that are accessible, affordable, reliable and neither harm the environment nor citizens to end. They want democratic and humane energy systems in which the energy needs of the most poor are met using clean energy such as offgrid solar and other affordable solutions. Uganda needs such a system and we all must work towards attaining it.

Ms Nabiruma is the senior communications officer of Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO).