When will Ugandans benefit from their renewable energy industry?

Uganda is a country rich in natural resources. The tropical climate provides sufficient sunshine and rainfall making it an ideal location for renewable energy projects namely in the area of hydropower and solar power.

There are many hydropower plants dotted around the country. At the source of the River Nile, on the outskirts of Jinja, there are two power plants, Nalubaale and Bujagali, with a third, Isimba, currently under construction. The two stations in operation have a total capacity of over 400MW. In the nearby villages, there are large masts where energy from the powerplants is transported to Kenya. Energy from Uganda accounts for 96% of Kenya’s imported power amounting to approximately 50MW a year.

Despite this less than 20% of Ugandan households have access to electricity. For those on the national grid expected and unexpected power cuts are not uncommon. Most businesses rely on generators to provide backup during these blackouts which are both noisy and expensive to run. Ownership of generators is unrealistic for small businesses who will incur losses at every power cut.

In villages, just a short distance from the huge power plants, the inhabitants cook with charcoal and live in darkness every evening after the sun sets. Biomass, mainly charcoal and firewood, are the main sources of energy used in Uganda. 90% of Ugandan households rely on fossil fuels for cooking and heating water. The use of fossil fuels is detrimental to the development of the population. It requires significantly more time to complete basic tasks of which women and children are most commonly responsible for. Hours spent collecting firewood, making charcoal and cooking would be saved by having access to a reliable energy supply and a simple electric hotplate. After sunset, usually between 7-8pm, the country is in darkness. Streetlights are not a common sight outside of wealthy neighbourhoods or exceptionally busy city streets. Reliance on candles and kerosene lamps during the night is unacceptable in a country with this renewable energy potential.

Reliance on biomass is a major contributing factor to air pollution and deforestation. Air pollution is linked with respiratory health problems, developed as a result of inhalation of smoke, especially when cooking is carried out in enclosed spaces. Uganda is currently experiencing high levels of deforestation with forest cover dropping from 20% in 1996 to

13% in 2016. Continued exploitation of fossil fuels will cause significantly more problems in the future, the biggest one being climate change, which is already contributing to droughts in northern Uganda. Conservation efforts of Ugandan woodland can only be successful if the population’s reliance on firewood is reduced and ultimately eliminated.

The main difficulty in reducing the country’s dependence on biomass is that despite the proximity to renewable power, Ugandan people simply cannot afford the cost of renewable electricity. Private solar-panels are also still too expensive even with government supported incentives and monthly repayment schemes. As usual, those with the lowest incomes are the ones that suffer the most. 0% of low income households have access to electricity compared to 77% of wealthy households. Children have less time to do homework and study as they are responsible for collecting firewood and have less access to lighting once it becomes dark. Equity in access to electricity is essential to enable young people from low-income families to escape poverty and reach their full potential.

The demands for development of sustainable energy projects in Uganda will, of course, come at a cost. Support from investors is vital in ensuring the implementation of efficient systems and modern technology. Negotiation of fair deals and subsidies should be of the utmost importance to ensure that the government can provide electricity at lower rates. Increasing access to grid electricity will be an invaluable investment in the Ugandan people.

The aim of Uganda’s National Development Plan and Uganda’s Vision 2040 is “to meet the energy needs of the Ugandan population for social and economic development in an environmentally sustainable manner.” This country possesses the natural resources and potential for these goals to be achieved under the correct guidance and I sincerely hope that they do.

Featured image  solar panels | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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