Need to stem the rising tide of electricity theft

EnergyDay Editorial Board

Electricity theft is a pervasive problem in the country, and has remained a source of great concern to stakeholders.

Worst still, while electricity generation in Nigeria falls short of the required consumption capacity, operators have to grapple with the challenge of theft of the available units. This medium finds it disturbing that the little power generated is being stolen by some unscrupulous consumers for whatever reason. The implication is that the system is short-changed leading to absence of the required funds needed to improve development of the sector.

Data obtained from Federal Office of Statistics, shows that electricity distribution companies in Nigeria (DisCos) lose about ₦30 billion every month owing to electricity theft. This amount is whopping, and if significantly reduced and spent on the power infrastructure and management, it would improve the power situation in the country.

EnergyDay as a concerned stakeholder would make a case for operators to deploy Smart Grid (SG) with its inherent smart metering as a solution to the electricity theft situation in Nigeria, due basically to its improved flexibility, security and reliability.

Smart Grid also gives room for energy diversification, by allowing the integration of various renewable energy sources into the conventional power grid. This will help in improving the epileptic power situation in the country.

We view electricity theft from a much broader perspective given its problematic nature. As it is obvious that some actions or inactions of operators give room for consumers to misbehave.

First, we need to interrogate the existing phenomenon where by communities and individuals are made to purchase electrical polls and transformers, and after installations these become property of DisCos.
In our view, this is unwholesome and tends to foster aggrieved–psychological predilection to sabotage.
Many consumers may view this as a form of cheat and oppression on the part of DisCos and resort to theft as a revenge mechanism. And to wit, electricity theft is a big drawback.

Perhaps, its important to relate the underdeveloped status of Nigeria to the endemic and alarming spate of electricity available for commercial and industrial use. Considering the quality of electricity available, the poor infrastructure, network inefficiency couple with electricity theft been witness on a daily basis, there is course for worry that the epileptic nature of the sector is not about to disappear anytime soon.

We submit that electricity theft alongside other obnoxious acts on the part of citizens has hindered the reliability and sustainability of electricity supply in the country and stalled economic growth.

As stated earlier, electricity theft leads to huge losses in the system. Experts classifies energy losses in the electrical power system into the technical loss and the non-technical loss (NTL). Technical loss is the loss that occurs naturally, as a result of dissipation of energy in the power transmission, and distribution equipment, while NTL or commercial loss, occurs owing to actions that are external to the electrical power system, such as theft. Interestingly, available evidence shows that electricity theft is the main cause of NTL.

It’s also worrisome that electricity theft constitutes about 80% of the energy losses in Nigeria. This no doubt are no figures good enough to attract foreign investment into the sector aside the other challenges it faces.

Thus for Nigeria to take its rightful place in the committee of nations, its electricity reliability flaws which is compounded by the spate of electricity theft must be dealt with.

For the purpose of educating, we are in the know that electricity is stolen by employing different methods. The two most common are direct connection to the power grid through the distribution lines and frauds that are related to electricity meters, otherwise known as meter tampering.

Meter tampering could be in the form of putting a strong magnet on top of an electromechanical meter or inserting a foreign object into the meter to impede the movement of the rotating disc inside the meter .

This tends to slow down the reading rate of the meter, which in turn indicates false reduction in energy consumption.

Damaging the pressure coil of the meter by hitting the meter and also creating a mechanical shock to the meter, so as to stop the meter from reading, is also a form of meter tampering. Moreover, an electricity meter could also be tampered with by bypassing the meter and connecting directly to the supply cables, just before it gets into the meter terminals.

Shorting the input and outputs terminals of the energy meter, or swapping the input terminals for the output terminals and vice versa to prevent the meter from reading is also a way of tampering with the meter .

Furthermore, some advanced ways of stealing electricity by meter tampering is using a supply phase, and a ground as a return path, instead of using the neutral supply from the utility company as a return path. In this case, the energy meter would assume no energy flow, and no reading would be recorded.

Damaging the insulation on the secondary side of the current transformer of the energy meter and tapping electricity directly from it to reduce the meter reading is also another way.

Electricity theft by piggybacking is another way of stealing electricity. It is a situation whereby power is being illegally tapped, this time, not directly from the distribution feeder but from other legal consumers who are oblivious of such action.

Other forms of electricity theft are resetting the meter readings, deliberate non-payment of electricity bills, vandalising the utility infrastructure, stealing electricity cables, and the unfaithful act of utility employees who collect bribes from electricity consumers to connect them illegally to the power grid; or collect bribes from electricity theft offenders, instead of fining them and reporting them appropriately.

These unscrupulous utility employees could also help the consumers in picking lower meter readings instead of the correct and accurate readings and thereby cause billing irregularities.

Unfortunately, it is erroneously assumed that most electricity theft occurrences in the country are as a result of poverty, but available evidence indicates that even the rich who are driven by greed and moral laxity also engaged in the act.

Case in point is the moral laxity displayed by corrupt utility employees or representatives who compromise their call to duty and connive with electricity consumers to negotiate personal terms of financial settlement, instead of being honest and objective. In such situation, consumers and the utility employees have chosen to tow the corruption path instead of being modest and law abiding.

Other moral laxity issues that cause electricity theft especially in Nigeria is the scandalous notion that, it is only criminal to steal from neighbours, families or friends but not a crime to steal from the State or public utilities. The fact that some citizens believe that electricity supply should be a social service, which should be given for free, is also a contributing factor.

Unfortunately, the inability or otherwise of the DisCos to provide electricity meters for all their consumers who wish to only pay for what they consume have also contributed to the rising incident of electricity theft in the country. Since those kind of consumers only get estimated billings, and at most times outrageous ones, they tend to cut corners and resolve to illegally such as electricity theft.

There are also cases where metered consumers are reported to get erratic billings. These billings, presumably estimated shoot up their electricity bills swiftly, and eventually turn them into stark debtors to the DisCos.

Such debt which remains permanent on their electricity bills, with the DisCos always insisting they must pay. This ugly event sometimes discourages the genuine customers from wanting to pay their electricity bills.

It’s important to state that the situation is not due to absence of laws and regulations guiding against the act. For instance laws against electricity theft are contained in Section 94 (3) of EPSRA 2005 [30], Section 9 and Section 10 of the Miscellaneous Offences Act (MOA) as well as the draft of NERC Electricity Theft and Other Related Offences Regulations, 2014. However, the weak enforcements of these laws have encouraged the electricity thieves to carry on.

Obviously, the liquidity crunch brought about by electricity theft to the DisCos affects everyone. Unfortunately, the innocent legal consumers too pay the price for electricity theft, even as the scourge also robs them of the available electricity. There are assumptions that the regular call by the DisCos for increase in electricity tariffs is due to the need to pay shortcut resulting from electricity theft since they cannot bear the burden alone.

Evidently, legitimate stakeholder pays indirectly from the illicit acts of stealing electricity, and this is a major reason the issue should concern everybody. It should be the duty of everyone to report anyone found culpable of stealing electricity. Stealing electricity also leads to serious injuries and fatalities .

This medium calls for the implementation and enforcement of the existing laws and regulations against electricity thieves.

Also there is a need for effective collaborative efforts and engagements between the DisCos and the Police. If offenders know they would get arrested and charged to courts, they would desist.

The need for special courts to handle electricity theft related cases cannot be overemphasized as it is vital to speedy dispensation of judgement which important in the war against the scourge. If there is speedy judgement and electricity theft offenders are jailed and/or told to pay huge fines, it will serve as a deterrent to others who aid and abet or engage directly in such illegal activities.

The DisCos must equally embark on vigorous consumers enlightenment campaign on the need to discourage electricity theft and encouraged reportage of offenders.

We’re convinced that if the general public is aware that the theft of electricity affect all stakeholders negatively as well as take away money from their pockets, they will be willing to give tip-offs about suspected electricity thieves.

To this end, DisCos should provide toll-free telephone numbers and as well encourage members of the public to report anonymously electricity theft.