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Opinions of Sunday, 4 October 2009

Columnist: Doe, James W.

Electric power to meters in Ghana

The recurrence of such anecdotal evidence from citizens to researchers about the promises made to distressed communities downstream the Volta Lake, following the construction of the Akosombo Dam has been compelling. Ten years after the construction of the dam all settlements along and downstream the lake will be connected to the national grid absolutely free. This should be feasible even today, but it only requires a political will just like the fee free education available to the North (three northen regions) since independence. The Volta River Authority (VRA) has since 1965 not kept its part of the bargain of meeting the demands of post-dam impact on villages and inhabitants. It is believed that this vision was by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah to compensate for the destruction of the livelihood of the people affected by the construction of the dam. The strongest case for implementing this policy is the requirement for even development and the fact that the energy produced by the running of turbines cannot be stored. As I speak today, many of these communities do not have electricity and those who have cannot pay for the electricity bills. Because their means of a livelihood have been permanently lost because their farms have been devastated through inundation by the flood water, a decline in fishing and the dwindling shallot farms have suffered perennial silting.

It is believed that people in areas like Anloga and especially from 'Savietula' to Keta or even westwards to Anyanui, all in the Keta District are living below a dollar a day. But this has never been captured in any of the Ghana Living Standards Surveys (GLSS). If you ask how do these people survive? I would say it’s by miracle, probably through low domestic and international remittances even this is not certain to have been occuring and must be investigated. The population is on a rapid decline in the area. The situation is so dire that during my visit to the town during the 50th Anniversary celebration of Anlo Secondary School now "SSS" (May 2009), a relation intimated that long before we heard about similar incidents in the Western Region, Anloga residents have been suffering from "soup theft" spree. This is how bad the living situation has become but no one seems to be complaining because it has become a "taboo" to pronounce publicly that you are poor. So everyone seems to be sitting on a time bomb just about to be detonated.

It will be recalled that during the peak of Ghana's hydroelectric energy production, there were partial exports to all of our neighbours in Burkina Faso, Togo, Ivory Coast and even Nigeria. The dwindled electric supply situation at the turn of the last century was a result of low water levels in the Volta Lake and urbanisation which had caused an electric energy deficit. This affected many companies and the largest electricity consumer, Valco causing these companies to operate below capacity. Which subsequently caused the shut down of Valco and exit of the Kaiser Group ushered Alcoa in its stead. Since then the Electricity Company of Ghana Ltd. (ECG) has not found a better way for consumers to pay appropriately they use and on time because of bad metering practices. The prepaid meters that were tested on pilot basis before rolling it onto consumers and the credit meters are all in short supply and many of the newly installed ones come in defective. Recent imports of credit meters have worsened the already a precarious situation as they are easily burnt by lightening after our tropical rainstorms. The meters in the house in which I live currently, have suffered this fate twice. And replacement of the burnt meters has become a tug of war even though every time the meter was destroyed fresh payments were made. The British or European branded meters that were installed since independence was still functioning well.

Although, the ECG is aware it is plagued with meter shortages, they continue to issue receipts against payment for meters to unsuspecting home owners. This is in a lure of the promise to supply them with a meter in a due course but this never materialises for many months to even years. Besides, some ECG staffs are exploiting the shortage of meters. They go round homes from time to time to demand and threaten unsuspecting consumers that they will disconnect them at the "pole," unless they are given some money. Some consumers who have had their credit meter burnt have had ECG contractors to reconnect them and they continue to pay electricity bills based on their past highest electricity use. This is to say they are being paid flat rates that are 300 percent higher than they would have paid if their meter was replaced. In the most recent case of a consumer who lives in Gbawe had lost his meter through lightening and was reconnected by ECG contractors without a replacement meter. Although the meter had been paid for some two years ago it has not been received and the customer is being billed on what is called a flat rate of GHc52.20 since the beginning of February 2009. Hitherto, this consumer used to pay GHc18 most part of 2008 and it should be said that nothing has changed in the house. The August bill which was in arrears of previous billing at GHc97.94 but was overpaid at GHc100.00 this meant the consumer had a credit of GHc2.06 then simultaneously a request for the subsequent bill on September 15, 2009 had gone up to GHc52.62. This is unbelievable and clearly shows the exploitation of electricity consumers in the country, such that the consumer will be paying an excess of GHc2.48 thus possibly resulting in a flat rate of GHc54.68 from September onwards. If this trend continues, it will not be surprising if by December or from January 2010 this consumer is billed say GHc60.20 on his flat rate.

The ECG should give proper explanation to the whole country on the way they bill consumers be it prepaid or credit meters. While this metering circus continues some meter readers go round telling consumers with working meters they can reduce their billing provided they give them cash under the table. The households and businesses that do not give such bribes are made to suffer by way of the "meter reader" inflating their rates by not less than 100 percent as in the above instance. This has become possible because meter readers go to homes and do their readings in their books but refuse to write such readings onto the log sheet of the consumer. Hence, the numerous cases of billings that bear the letter "E," which stands for estimate on a flat rate bill. Similar to this bill of January 7, 2009 which read 11993E (Present) and 11843E (Past) with a unit/rate of 150. Whereas, in the February the unit/rate rose to 400. My question how on earth should a meter that is being read not to represent the actual but an estimate. I will recommend strongly that the use of "E" or estimate should hence forth be discontinued in the vocabulary of the ECG. If anything at all above consumer should have had his bills reduced under the circumstances that three adults have rather ceased to live in the house because they are currently domicile abroad. Therefore, not only a lesser number of people live in the house but they return only to sleep at night after work. In view of all these problems I will suggest the introduction of migration from ripple to smartmetering in the future although a bit costly. where the consumers will be in the fullest control of what is used and are able to turnof all power, then turn it on as and when necessary.

It is unthinkable that electricity suppliers anywhere would make losses. But in Ghana this is what the ECG has made us to believe, even in the wake of such arbitrariness in their billing operations. Following the rampant power cuts and power surges which have caused a lot of destruction no one has been able to hold the ECG responsible. There was an attempt to take the ECG to court in the case of a Law Lecturer, Mr. Ernest Kofi Abotsi of KNUST in Kumasi but the case is inconclusive yet. Last year in New Zealand for instance when the preschool teacher was killed, Mercury Energy had to pay dearly an undisclosed sum that could have run into a million dollars of compensation in a civil suit. "The New Zealand mother-of-four Folole Muliaga, 44, died on May 29, 2007 three hours after a contractor working for the Mercury Energy power company cut off the electricity supply to her South Auckland home because the family was late in paying a $168.40 power bill. The action rendered Muliaga’s electrically-operated oxygen machine useless."Again in Ghana we have such laws, regulatory bodies and even civil society organisations have been unable to compel the ECG to account for the numerous deaths as a result of power cuts in our hospitals. When I lived in New Zealand there was not a single cut in electricity. Apart from Mercury Energy, there are the Contact and Meridian energy companies too that I know have been providing electricity in the South Island. These are electricity companies that discount bills for consumers year on year when electricity production is in excess. The ECG of Ghana just aims at increasing electricity rates at every whim instead of focusing on reliable power supply at cheaper rate.

In conclusion, I am saying we should develop innovative ways that will make credit meters mutually beneficial to consumers and the electricity company in a manner similar to how cellphones are used to build credit and access credit scores for residents in the USA. This enables people to access various things, like acquiring a home or renting a house. In this regard we need the establishment of a privately funded credit reference bureau will be appropriate and a show of innovation from banks. Consumers should be assured of accessing bank loans just as settling their bills on time. In the same vein the ECG will benefit from receiving timely payment for bills and bring about improvements in tax collection. These activities will unleash the synergies of the society for development.