Sierra Leone lights up from Bumbuna dam

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — The construction company that Barton Cole works for no longer has to spend $5 a day to power generators to run its computers, timber and welding equipment.

And Abdul Kamara can now run a refrigerator and watch DVDs just about any time he wants.

“We had 24-hour lights as soon as Bumbuna was switched on,” he said. “Before we didn’t have lights because we [Freetown] had transformer problems, old pipes.”

Ask anyone here about “the lights” and they instantly mention the Bumbuna Falls Hydroelectric Project located 124 miles northeast of Freetown.

Switched on nearly two months ago, Bumbuna's electricity has made obsolete the noisy, diesel-reliant generators running in nearly every backyard, office and restaurant kitchen.

There are still occasional power outtages but they last a few minutes to a few hours, compared to the hours and sometimes days of darkness before Bumbuna began functioning.

Bringing reliable electricity to the capital city and the surrounding region of 2 million people has been a long-sought goal. The fact that it’s clean, renewable energy may not matter to residents, but it was a deliberate strategy of the government. Most developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are moving away from traditional use of fossil fuels to create electric power, says Ogunlade Davidson, Sierra Leone’s minister of energy and water resources. Sierra Leone can rely on water and solar power to light up the country.

That’s what he and colleagues from other least-developed African countries stressed at the climate change conference in Copenhagen.

“We need to take a low carbon path to development,” Davidson said. “We want to make sure we’re not emitting as much as if we were using fossil fuels.”

Davidson is quick to point out that Sierra Leone and other African nations did not cause the resource shortage or climate change problems that have led to the global push towards renewable energy, yet these countries are suffering from the fallout.

Weather patterns here have shifted, and most farmers lack the technology and skills to make the planting and harvesting adjustments that are needed.

“We need to be compensated for it,” Davidson says of adaptation measures the African group pushed for in Copenhagen. “Africa has only contributed to 3 percent of the problem.”

According to the United Nations Development Program, only 12 percent of people in the western urban region of Sierra Leone — which includes Freetown — use electricity for lighting. Most people use wood and coal for cooking and generators for other needs.

The price of a generator starts at $75 and goes up to several hundred dollars depending on size and quality. Diesel fuel for the generators ranges from $3 to $4 a gallon.

Bumbuna is the first step in a far-reaching, expensive effort to provide power and a significant milestone for President Ernest Bai Koroma. He made energy a priority upon taking office in 2007. Bumbuna Falls has been in the planning or building stage since the late 1970s.

At Electricity House, home to the National Power Authority and energy ministry, daily traffic is brisk, as people stop in to pay for their free-flowing current.

Abdul Kamara said he paid nearly $25 to receive power for the month of December. The system works on a pre-paid meter system.

Davidson said the government plans to lower the fees once more people are connected. But it’s expensive to get connected, says Alusine Lamine, who lives on the east side of Freetown, where power is not as consistent.

“I want to be connected but it costs 400,000 Leones [$100],” he said. “I don’t have the money now.”

The transformers that Bumbuna supplies used to run on diesel fuel and were unreliable because of the country’s inability to retain enough fuel to keep the grid running and the lack of money to repair power lines built in the 1960s.

Cole, an engineer, said the hydro plant is likely the best option for the country.

“We don’t have the type of economy that would be able to subsidize the supply of fuel,” he said. “Solar panels and batteries are too expensive.”

The Bumbuna plant provides Freetown residents with 26-megawatt hours of power regularly. By comparison, the average U.S. household used 936-kilowatt hours — nearly one-megawatt hour — per month in 2007.

In order to afford the project, the government teamed up with Salini Costruttori, an Italian company, to build the dam and accompanying substation. According to the African Development Bank, most of $35.6 million of the $44.5 million needed to complete the project came from the Italian and Sierra Leonean governments, as well as the U.K. Department for International Development. The African Development Bank also provided a low-interest loan.
Future phases of the project have the potential to provide up to 400-megawatt hours of electricity, Davidson said, but the government is still looking for investors to help fund it.

“We need to improve the electricity supply twice as much as the city’s growth,” he said. “Suppressed demand is very high.”