POWER THEFT: Liberia’s Number One Economic Enemy

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A cousin once likened efforts at curbing power theft in Liberia to a dentist “extracting a patient’s tooth without applying an anesthesia”. It is an uphill battle if not a painful process that urgently needs government’s intervention or shall I say a legislative backing, without which power theft will continue to raise its ugly head and go with impunity. So, the Liberia Electricity Corporation, LEC is dealt a major blow by the daily power theft cases across Monrovia which has not only damaged its infrastructure and leads to the burning of homes but it does undermine the economy which vastly depends on electricity to turn its wheels.

In her New Year’s Day message and meetings with traditional leaders and government officials a fortnight ago, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said the government will among other projects, place high premium on the provision of electricity to the country. Top on the agenda is the Mount Coffee Hydro Power Plant, an 80MW capacity of providing electricity to Monrovia and other parts of the country will complete its first unit by December 2015 that will produce 20MW of power. The entire project will be completed by June 2016 to take Liberia from darkness.

Remember the succeeding years after the civil war when the sounds of personal generators echoed across especially Monrovia because it was the only source of electricity? And do you also remember the many residents who suffered the effect of carbon monoxide which the generators produced? And do you most importantly remember how people went to bed with one eye open because they were on maximum alert to ward off criminals from breaking into their homes because of darkness? Even with that, criminals took advantage of the cover of darkness to break into homes, businesses and other establishments.

The local papers were filled with countless accounts of robberies and deaths or injuries resulting from these acts. Those days are long gone. In an audacious effort to provide this basic social service to Liberia, the LEC struggled to resuscitate damaged facilities in a desperate attempt to illuminate a country darkened by 14 years of carnage and destruction.

Now fast forward to present. The LEC has succeeded to a larger extent in providing electricity to many parts of Monrovia and the country, including Paynesville, Robertsfield Highway, Virginia and nearly locations. There are now street lights in many communities. More poles are being planted in other parts of Liberia including Monrovia in readiness for the expansion of electricity. And the government’s ambitious plans to expand this basic social service to all and sundry illustrates that LEC is up to the task.

Despite all these developments, the LEC is plagued by the greatest enemy to our economy and sustainability-POWER THEFT. As well as the LEC, electricity theft also costs the population in lost revenues each year.

When the term ‘power or electricity theft’ appears in the newspapers or broadcast on radio and TV, chances are you don’t think that electricity theft has anything to do with you. Power theft is when one steals electricity from the poles and uses it as well as connects others so that they will not have to pay money for electricity to LEC. Third party connection, which is when a registered customer receives power from LEC and in turn illegally connects others to their line, also constitutes power theft. Additionally, power theft is when the consumer deliberately tries to deceive the LEC by tampering with the meter so that a lower reading of power used is shown than is the case. This can be a risky procedure and many cases of electrocution could occur.

 

Thousands of dollars of potential revenues are lost to power theft everyday at various communities. Some unscrupulous community dwellers are in the habit of carrying out illegal connections at night or defiantly at broad daylight. These power thieves in turn charge households in their communities hefty sums (up to US$40.00 monthly) to get connected to stolen power.

Early 2013, the LEC launched a campaign to rid Monrovia of power theft and save the company millions of dollars in lost revenues. What the Energy Monitoring (Power Theft) crew and the police discovered was unimaginable. Unscrupulous elements stole power from the LEC poles, buried the wires underground to central points of distribution before connecting homes and some businesses. In some discoveries, the thieves carved portions of trees, buried the wires and sealed them up with potty. Each time the power theft crew removes these wires, the thieves return to connecting them.   

With Liberia enjoying 10 years of uninterrupted peace and an effort to create a sustainable growth and development in the economy, power theft could be a hindrance to these objectives. The defiant and “don’t care” attitude of these thieves and communities have attracted the media spotlight even more than before. 

“I don’t steal electricity,” you might say to yourself. “my neighbors are the ones who steal power. But I don’t have anything to do with it”, you might say that quietly. The truth of the matter is that electricity theft affects us all – whether we like it or not.

At the top of the power supply chain is the LEC which loses several millions of dollars annually due to energy losses suffered as a result of electricity theft. This negatively impacts the quality and stability of power supply in a country, rising from the doldrums that is already burdened by a constrained power system.

Economic growth is the greatest contributor to a slow job market and a stable power supply is a key driver to power the economy. It is therefore, in everyone’s interest to protect the power system and to use energy efficiently.

As the country booms, many investments are looking toward manufacturing finished products. This will in turn have a multiplier effect. It would create job opportunities for the citizenry more especially the youth, bring technology and innovations to Liberia, appreciation and a decrease in the price of locally produced goods thereby allowing Liberians to keep more of their money. It also serves as a form of protection to your areas and helps law enforcement agencies rid the communities of criminals. 

Sadly, the people who are most affected by electricity theft are those who need electricity the most. Big businesses, government projects and industry are next on the list of potential losers. Electricity theft contributes to power outages that in turn disrupt traffic and business, ultimately impeding economic growth. For the average Liberian that means limited access or disrupted power supply, traffic delays especially in areas where traffic lights are mounted and needed, a lack of productivity at work and a general malaise due to the disruptive nature of intermittent power.

Perhaps one thing customers need to know is that for every stolen power by unscrupulous people or thieves, the LEC would pass on the cost of the stolen power to them. This means if your neighbor or someone steals power, you pay for it. That increases your electric bill.

So what can the average Liberian do to help combat the scourge of electricity theft and to keep our country power-ful? Report any suspected electricity theft. There is also a need for various communities to take ownership and show leadership in tackling power theft. Instead of discouraging or reporting power theft, residents rather remain silent or aid in the theft.

The economies of many countries in the sub-region including Ghana have improved because of local manufacturing and production. And they have succeeded because of electricity, without which nothing can be achieved. They have cultivated a sense of national pride, patriotism by setting their sights on their countries as the biggest picture. We can too.

According to the 2013 statistics released for this article by the Director of the National Fire Service, G.W Barvoul, 36 of the total of 143 fire cases reported were attributed to electrical problems. Although he could not say whether or not they were due to power theft, technicians at the LEC, however, believe most were due to power theft.

So, the LEC has instituted measures to curb the practice in lieu of a national policy on power theft. According to LEC’s chief power theft hunter, Curtis Lavallee, among other power theft fines, a customer is fined US125.00 and a 30-day suspension of service for a third party connection, US300.00 and a 60-day suspension of service for bye-passing the meter-all for first offense. The fines and suspensions are doubled for the second occurrences and so on. However, he recommends that government through the legislature must institute harsher punishments for power thieves as it is hindering efforts at providing electricity to the country. According to him, even with these measures there are still repeat offenders. 

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