Uganda energy strategy to mix clean, dirty fuels

The Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited (UEGCL) Board inspects a thermal plant of 50.2MW in Namanve, Wakiso District, recently. PHOTO / COURTESY.

What you need to know:

  • The presence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and churches in the regions that dangle soft loans and credits to people interested in using solar technologies also helps matters a great deal.

On May 10, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development released a statement showing how Uganda’s plan to build a nuclear power project within a decade is taking shape.

The government, the ministry said, is considering building the nuclear plant in Buyende District, in eastern Uganda. The nuclear plant is expected to bring 2,000MW to the national grid.

Nuclear energy, though recyclable, is not classified as renewable, unlike solar (from sun), geothermal (from heat inside the earth), wind, biomass (from plants) and hydropower (from flowing water) .

Uganda has a range of energy options at her disposal.

The Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited (UEGCL) Board recently visited a thermal plant of 50.2MW in Namanve Wakiso District.

This was the board’s first visit to the plant since the government took over its management from Jacobsen Uganda Power Plant Company Limited in February. The plant, however, does not sit neatly in the renewable basket as it is driven by fuel.

“We need about 1.2 million litres of heavy fuel to run this plant each month,” Mr David Lukwago, the plant’s station manager, said, adding: “We don’t use the usual fuel you use in your cars.”

Uganda is gifted with favourable solar radiation of 1,825 kWh/m² to 2,500 kWh/m² per year.

President Museveni launched a 20-megawatt solar power plant in 2019 in the central district of Gomba.

Solar energy is currently used primarily for off-grid electrification for rural communities, as well as for solar cooking, and providing water heating and power to public buildings, for instance, health centres.

Despite its abundance in Uganda, solar energy’s use as an electric and heat source puts limits to it. A recent study found that there were more solar energy users in the southwest and central regions. This could be thanks to the Uganda Photovoltaic Pilot Project on Renewable Energy (UPPPRE) programme that promotes solar energy in the stated regions.

The presence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and churches in the regions that dangle soft loans and credits to people interested in using solar technologies also helps matters a great deal.

While there are credit schemes offered by banks and micro-finance institutions in the west and east for the purchase of solar equipment, response towards these schemes has been minimal. The National Association of Professional Environmentalists’ (NAPE) recent report suggested that a knowledge gap could be responsible for such an outlook.

EACOP protest

A video of two young activists beseeching French President Emanuel Macron to pull the plug on the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) went viral. More than anything, the episode underlines the West’s insistence on swapping dirty fossil fuels with clean energy.

“These activists should know that our policy emphasises the need to utilise the resources to create value for the citizens and the region,” Energy minister Ruth Nankabirwa said of the episode, adding: “In this regard, we opine that equity necessitates that the world pursues energy integration rather than energy transition in its current form.”

The pipeline will snake from mid-western Uganda in Hoima to Chongleani terminal at Tanga Port in Tanzania at the Indian Ocean.

“Uganda is striving for responsible exploitation of its oil and gas resources through appropriate policy and regulation aimed at energy integration rather than energy transition,” Ms Nankabirwa revealed.

The Uganda Petroleum Authority (PAU)—the body that regulates and monitors the petroleum sector in Uganda—also believes in the “energy mix” theory.

PAU said in a statement: “Fossil fuels as a source of energy contribute a big percentage to the energy mix. Over the years, new technologies have been adapted to minimise the carbon footprint from the exploration of these resources. EACOP is a major project in the development of Uganda’s Oil and gas resources.”

“Energy mix” theory support

Ms Nankibirwa and PAU can add UEGCL to its list of supporters of the “energy mix” theory. The board of the energy transmitter said as much while defending the thermal plant that belches dirty gases into the atmosphere.

“We need an energy mix that ensures the reliability of power,” Mr Harrison Mutikanga the chief executive officer of UEGCL, said, adding: “We can’t rely on just one power source only. We need hydro, thermal, solar, nuclear, and others.”

Another defence of operating the thermal plant is that it comes in handy during emergencies. They cite the 2019 case when a huge floating island in Lake Victoria prompted a countrywide blackout after choking the turbines at Nalubaale Hydro Power Station, which was being operated by power company Eskom.

“The plant is playing a cardinal role in energy for the grid. The monthly net energy production since the takeover to date is on average 5168.4MWh at a 99.8 percent plant availability,” Ms Proscovia M. Njuki, the UEGCL board chairperson, said, adding: “The power plant capacity is 50.2MW and it is capable of producing full load when called upon during emergency conditions.”

Since independence Uganda has relied on hydropower. Some consider this form of energy clean, with Nalubaale (180MW), Kiira (200MW), Bujagali (250MW), and recently Isimba (183MW) powering dams connected to the national grid.  Mr Museveni believes Uganda will have sufficient power when Karuma (600MW) is added to the national grid. He adds that this will trigger investments of all kinds.

Nuclear power plans

It is not clear how the government is going to finance the nuclear plant, but the government says it has taken the right direction.

Capacity, it adds, has been built in the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, as well as Atomic Energy Council to plan and manage the nuclear power project.

The nuclear power plant (NPP) site is yet to be identified.

Elsewhere, a study on integrating nuclear power in the electricity generation capacity plan 2015-2040 has been completed. The study recommended 2,000MW of nuclear power starting in 2031. It also identified nuclear reactor technology options, nuclear fuel cycle options, as well as funding and financing options. Awareness of nuclear energy has been created. An assessment of human resources was conducted and competencies required for key institutions were identified.

A study on the status of radioactive waste management in Uganda was conducted and options for radioactive waste and spent fuel management have all been identified.

An assessment of local industrial involvement was conducted and goods and services required for the local supply of the first NPP have been identified.

With Iran facing Western sanctions over its nuclear power ambition, Mr Museveni has been quick to make it clear that Uganda’s nuclear ambitions are peaceful.

“For us, we want that power for electricity, for agriculture, and not for nuclear weapons,” he said recently as he met with a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Although official figures show that Uganda has a power consumption surplus, Afro Barometer’s 2021 study showed that more households use solar energy than electricity from the national grid. This status quo, the study goes on to note, is down to lack of access and connection to the national grid.