The Paradox of Liberia Exporting Electricity to Ivory Coast During Elections

— The political and economic implications 

When Liberia’s Finance Minister, Samuel Tweah burst the news boastfully at a Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) political campaign rally that Liberia is exporting surplus electricity to neighboring Ivory Coast while the vast majority of its population suffered acute electricity blackouts, many took the news as a fairy tale.

The media community followed up the story with the management of the state-owned power company, the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC). The information was found to be true as LEC’s Chief Executive Officer, Monie Captan confirmed that as a result of the rise in the water level of LEC’s Mt Coffee Hydropower plant, it generated enough electricity, and the Government thought it prudence to engage in international energy trade with Ivory Cost by exporting the surplus power through the CLSG transmission corridor.

CEO Captan emphasized that the power transaction in July of 2023 raised over half a million U.S. dollars which would help offset Liberia’s energy debt to Ivory Coast for the past periods.

The following key questions trigger the need for transparency and accountability as emphasized by the ECOWAS Energy Protocol, reference to cross border electricity trade:

1. Does a real electricity surplus exist in Liberia with an underserved customer base of 245,000 (LEC customer data, 2023) at a high residential price of  $0.27/kWh compared to its neighbors and parts of Africa?

2. Does Ivory Coast really have that much acute power shortage during this wet season (where its own hydroelectric plants capacities likely to increase as well) for which it must enter into an energy import deal with a country  it recently supplied electricity to partially meet its domestic demands during the  dry season? 

3. In cross-border power trade, someone has to create the demand based on need. In this case, the receiving end is often the one in need. Knowing the demand side allows the adoption of the principles of economic dispatch, considering locational marginal pricing (LMP).

With Ivory Coast’s average residential price of electricity being 11 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) and Liberia at 27 cents per kWh, does the Government agree that under economic dispatch principles, Liberia is selling power to Ivory Coast at a higher profitable rate than it bought from Ivory Coast in the dry season? If so could that be a  prudent deal Ivory Coast would be willing to enter without Liberia compromising its electric energy value for emergency revenues? And why such emergency revenue at the expense of its underserved customers?

The sincere answers to these questions by LEC would inform Liberians if the international power trade deal was done in bad or good faith. It is paradoxical when a country exports surplus power, but cannot meet about 50% of the energy needs of its current registered domestic customers. The export deal seems to favor more economic benefits that lack clarity on how it is fairly captured and accounted for to benefit the state and citizens whose rights to affordable and reliable access to electricity is being denied, given the announced power surplus generated. 

In an election season where responding robustly to domestic electricity demands would be the political weapon of the ruling establishment, the CDC government chose to export its electricity surplus where it is seemingly not needed most at this time. Ivory  Coast’s electricity access rates are 92% urban and 38% rural (SE4All Africa Hub, 2022) while Liberia’s national access rate is 29.85% (World Bank, 2021).

How then, with such a low access rate, would a Government seeking re-election deprive its citizens of the needed electricity when they were promised to bear the inconveniences of darkness and chronic power rationing until the rainy season to access reliable supply as the hydroelectric plant capacity improves?

Given the different electricity access rates in both countries, which country would prioritize domestic electricity supplies, especially during elections? Liberia’s energy debt to Ivory Coast is nothing new in the book. Why is the urgency of offsetting now under the impression of having surplus power that the people cannot first access? 

When CDC Campaign Manager, Eugene Nagbe, also bragged of the quoted surplus power export, he described the opposition block as being uneducated for their criticism of the deal. From analysis of the political and economic implications of the deal, the Campaign Manager’s statement was the complete reverse. Electricity is a public good, especially being generated by the people’s own generating assets and systems.

Public interest takes preference in its transmission, distribution, and marketing. If Liberia had a procedural aggressive political opposition community, a formal review petition would have been filed before the ECOWAS Regional Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERERA) to establish the prudence of this cross-border trade in the absence of meeting domestic demand during these election campaign periods. 

Liberia’s electricity sector is being liberalized. The LEC must begin to respect that. The 2015 Liberia Electricity Law brought significant reforms in the sector by establishing the Liberia Electricity Regulatory Commission (LERC), removing the LEC vertical electricity monopoly and making it regulated by the LERC.

One of the key regulatory functions is public participation through hearings and notices to comment on its electricity transaction programs and policies. Denying public participation in a major decision to export electricity when domestic demands are unmet, needed a regulatory review and public participation. The public could seek redress from ERERA in keeping with the  ECOWAS’ energy Protocol, in reference to prioritizing public interest.

On Africa's map of residential electricity average prices, Liberia stands third to Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau at $0.35/ kWh and $0.31/kWh respectively. This condition of high power tariff in Liberia can be addressed if CLSG transmission corridor connectivity with Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea is not manipulated for emergency revenue, but managed to also attract domestic private sector electricity generation and trading.

With an enabling private sector and clean energy investment, Liberian power generators could invest in grid-tied rooftop and community solar production. Excess generated electricity from such production during the dry season will not only help lower the high tariff but empower the Liberian private sector to trade energy on the CLSG market.

 The CLSG stands to connect with the West Africa Power Pool (WAPP). This  US$508.62m  Transco-CLSG 1300 km, 225kv, 406 MW transmission corridor is a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) created in March 2012 by an International treaty. It has the goal of increasing affordable and reliable electricity access to member states of the Mano River Union(MRU). Its initial social responsibility mandate was to prioritize electricity access to communities along the CLSG corridor.

This is why electricity is being supplied to parts of the Southeast, Nimba, and Bong counties through a distribution contract with Jungle Energy Power (JEP).  Therefore, it is worth noting to the CDC establishment that the CLSG is the result of an international power treaty since 2012 with multilateral and bilateral funding commitments for sub-regional implementation in the MRU region. It was about 75% complete before the  CDC regime's inception.

And because the Government is continuity, the current regime was under obligation to cooperate with such a major social infrastructure project. So  STOP the overarching credits to yourself for what you didn’t initiate and do the best you can in leveraging the benefits during these election campaigns.