Metering has been the mitigating factor in the smooth running of electricity distributions under the current private handlers of the national assets, particularly since the privatization of the power sector in the last three years. In this encounter with, ENG. ABIMBOLA ODUBIYI, the Executive Director for Regulatory and Stakeholders Relation at the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company; he expatiated certain factors vitiating proper billings and energy loss in the electricity market while proffer both the short and long term possible solutions for the country’s electricity life-wire, more importantly as it affects Abuja Disco and its subscribers. He spoke with our Abuja Bureau, SOLA AKINGBOYE at the company’s Head office in Abuja. Excerpts:
AEDC has always been in the news and most time not on positive perspectives; it is either the case of grid siphoning or short-changing customers with crazy electricity billings. What is the company doing to build a lasting trust with its customers?
In the utility business of this nature, such company that interacts with mass number of people, touching lives of different categories of people will always be on the news. It is enough evidence that we still exist; we are still interacting with our customers. Although, there are some mischievous people who will like to embarrass us or put us in a negative realm, but everyone is entitled to their opinions. But we on our part are doing the proper thing to ensure we correct such negative perspectives by improving on our customer relationship, even though we are not afraid of being in the news. We would always try our best to educate those who are bent on being mischievous against us, by showing them what we are doing and correct these wrong perspectives.
On metering, the Ikeja Disco has just been slammed with the sum of about N131, 000 by NERC, as penalty for non-compliance with CAPMI order. Is your company up to the task to have escaped being penalized this time?
We are doing our best to comply with CAPMI order. However I will like to tell you this, CAPMI is a voluntary scheme introduced by the regulator, it is not compulsory for every Disco to implement CAPMI. It is just a stop-gap measure. In the old PHCN days, government refused to fund their metering programme and the regulator now came up with the scheme, where the individual customers can decide on their own to buy their own meter through Distribution Company, and they will be refunded. So it is a voluntary thing. There is nothing in the License condition; there is nothing in the Act; there is nothing that says a distribution company must implement CAPMI. If a distribution company can decide on its own to meter all its customers at an appropriate time, then it doesn’t need CAPMI and the meters are the Discos’ own asset by law.
Are you insinuating that NERC erred in its decision to take action when Discos flout any of its initiatives?
It is unfortunate that the regulator went that way; to me I would say they are not being fair. NERC overreached its boundary. In this industry, all of us, both the industry and the regulator must operate according to the law and the rules of the game and not to be over-exuberant on issues.
Are you suggesting legal action against NERC by the Ikeja Disco, probably be in anticipation that what is good for the gander will turn around for the goose?
I will not like to hold brief for the Ikeja Disco, I don’t know what transpired between them and I am not even authorized to speak on their behalf, but I hold my position that CAPMI is a voluntary thing; it is not part of Electricity Power Supply Act. But we at AEDC are making progress in our metering programme.
At what percentage can you boast that AEDC customers have been metered?
Actually, I don’t have the figure with me here but I can only tell you that we are making good progress, and strictly adhering to our performance in line with BPE regulation, which requires that we should meter up to 500,000 customers in five years; so you should wait till the end of five years, then you can then judge us.
Looking at the spate of development and infrastructural expansion along Abuja-Keffi, what measure is AEDC putting in place to meet the challenges of population explosion in those areas?
We are aware that from Karu down to Masaka, there are customers there with increasing population by the day. Right now, we have a special focus on that axis to install more transformers; deploy more marketers and more staff to service those areas. Not only the zone, after all, we also have similar programme for Mpape and the Kubwa axis.
There is this public opinion that the recent improvement in the power supply across the country is due to increase in the water level from the major hydro-power generation, but the Perm Sec-Power, Amb. Godknows Igali recently debunked the claim. How will you balanced that?
That cannot be true. The main increase comes from the thermal stations because there is improved gas supply in recent times, which we pray should continue so that there will be more electricity supply from our end.
Recently, your Disco was at loggerhead with NERC after being penalized on allegation of short changing customer on crazy billing. How far have you gone in solving the matter?
Not really at loggerhead with the regulator, we are just trying to explain realities to the regulator. We are always improving on estimated billing; there is always a room for improvement. As far as a customer is not metered and placed on estimation, you have to try your best to get it right. It is not an exact timing, it is either you get it wrong or right and reasons we always tell our customers if they have any issues, let them come forward, so that we can rectify the problem.
Does that mean metering remains the answer?
Absolutely, metering is the answer but it takes time to meter a lot of customers.
The challenge is that at the time of procuring these meters, most of the local manufacturers could not meet up with the market demand for them. What we are doing is to embark on proper enumerations; knowing who the customer is and where they are. This includes setting up the proper computer network that will make them work effectively. Metering is not just about buying a smartphone, every meter purchase requires a backing process that must be completed before you commissioned the meter. And this takes some time.
Are there other challenges from metering?
The other challenge is that our towns and cities are not well structured or planned. So, in trying to plan a proper roadmap for metering has been a difficult thing in this part of the world. Some houses are difficult to access, because they have walls surrounding them, security gadgets and guards makes penetration difficult most time. However, these are surmountable challenges just that it might take some time. What we are asking for is patience; we need our customers to be patient. Rome was not built in a day, we shall get there.
What areas do you think government support is still needed to make electricity Meters available in order to end these wrangling?
I will propose short, medium and the long term solution. On the short term however; due to inadequate manufacturing capacity confronting local manufacturers at present, it will be in the best interest of the sector if government can allow distribution companies the window of at least four years, to massively import electricity meters into the country at zero duty. This will help cushioned the effect of shortages and enable us to catch up with the quantity numbers of meters we needed.
But will that not erode the principle of local content policy of the government?
What I am saying in essence is that, within four years of importation by Discos, government will then encourage more manufacturing companies for meters in Nigeria, and then compel distribution companies to patronize them. This is because it might take at least 2-3 years to set up a meter manufacturing factories, and you cannot tell your customers to wait for three years because they want to patronize the Nigerian company. By the end of four years, government would have encouraged local manufacturers of meters and then compel us (Discos) to patronise them, and that will enable all of us to continue to support local manufacturers.
How far has AEDC gone with the fixed electricity charge as ordered by NERC, especially following the National Assembly’s intervention?
At AEDC, we appreciate the apprehension that some consumers have about fixed charge. However, fixed charge is a normal thing in all utilities all over the world. What we are doing here is not unusual, and having said that and as a listening company, we have decided that our fixed charge will be reducing by 5 percent annually in the next ten years on the compound basis, that is if approved by the regulator.
Can you expatiate on that?
It means that, what people will be paying will be discounted with the current rate of inflation. AEDC customers will be on 70 percent less than what they are paying now, and I think that is a good deal to prove to our customers that we listen to their complains.
There is a clause in the restructuring order as explained by NERC, saying customers won’t pay for what they don’t use. Can you expatiate on that?
Normally, you don’t pay for what you don’t use, and AEDC does not on its own go ahead to charge customers for what they don’t use. If you have meter in your house and you don’t use electricity, the meter will not read and you don’t have to pay. However, if you don’t have a meter and you are placed on direct billing, what then happen is if you are living your house for a long period of time, the appropriate thing is to notify us that your premises or this house will be vacant for this period of time, so that the customer will not be billed. But what we discovered is that many customers do not put efforts to notify us, especially those on direct billing and unfortunately there is no way we could be abreast of what is going on in everyone’s premises. It is an appropriate thing to do; customers should not take things for granted that, for example, Christmas is approaching, if you are travelling; let us know you are living your house locked, and that we do the proper thing for you. Aside from that however, even without informing us and you can show evidence and convincing us that you were not available, then we will react, it only requires proper documentation and evidence.
Is there no way prepaid meters can be programmed in such a way that customers can lock up their meters when travelling?
As you know, people can lie or take advantage of anything to perpetrate criminality. We have seen cases where customers attempted manipulation of their pre-paid meters and create much more problems for us.
The global electricity market focuses on cleaner and a more sustainable energy mix. As an expert in the field, where is Nigeria in this regard?
In fact, God has blessed Nigeria with different energy mix that can give us electricity in abundant, we have the fossil fuel; we have gas; we have coal and also we have a lot of renewable such as sunlight, hydro and a little bit of wind. We have to mix all this to generate power at the least possible cost. It is no point saying because we want to satisfy a particular environmental target, and begin to introduce different projects and at the end of the day, it will become unaffordable to us. So there is need for us to have a total balance of the mixture. Also, conservation is very important. This means the part that customers have to play; many of us in Nigeria waste energy, we waste electricity. We should try and conserve, and to manage the resources to enable it last longer. Most times, people put on electricity more than they require, simply because they obtained it cheap and ready to use it anyhow, what I am preaching is let’s imbibe the culture of energy conservation.
Is there anything you will like to add?
Yes, beyond government and AEDC, every individuals have a role to play, all of us need to work together to build our electricity industry. It is for government to create the enabling environment, maintain regulatory framework and all aspects that encourage enterprise. On the operators’ side, they must continue to be innovative, work harder to generate ideas that will serve the customers. And we, at distributions also need the support of the customers in the payment of their bills and to help protect the installations for their own advantage. So we all have to work together to make the Independent Power Project a success for the benefit of all.