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High costs as transformer goes up in flames

By Agnes E. Nantaba

Experts say electricity installations need better maintenance

On the night of Oct. 16, fire broke out at an important electricity supply facility in the Mulago neighbourhood of Kampala city’s north-western area. The Kampala North Substation was once again on fire.  The fire started at around 2.30am and John Omoding, who runs a private car parking yard adjacent to the substation, recalls how he desperately tried to ensure their safety.“It was not easy to get to all the car owners at that time or even get them clamped away in such a short period of time,” he says.

Fortunately, police fighters arrived in time and put out the fire before a lot of damage was made.


Concern persists, however, because this is the second fire to erupt at the same station in a space of under 12 months. Last, November the station was engulfed in an even bigger fire which left more damage. But it is not only Kampala North Substation that has been repeatedly hit by fires. Another substation at Mutundwe to the south west of the city caught fire in December 2012.

In this case, Kenneth Otim, the spokesperson of UETCL said the fire started when the insulators on one of their transformers failed. The insulators are supposed to protect the facility with the high voltage power supplied by UETCL to Umeme before it is transformed to levels fit for domestic consumption.

Otim also attempted to rationalize the cause of the fire.

“The proven problem was system failure which can happen to any equipment,” he said, “in this case, it could have been due to material failure.”

He said since 2005, when then-Uganda Electricity Board (UEB) was unbundled into three entities; generation, transmission, and distribution, UETCL has been upgrading its substations.

He said the Kampala North Substation, which has four major transformers, had been upgraded using funding from the Norwegian Government. Still, it appears, the upgrades have been inadequate.

An insider from Umeme’s technical department says that the fire may have resulted from an overload since the transformer supplies power to a wide area.  During the fire, this time, supply was disrupted in most of northern Kampala areas like Ntinda, Kawanda, Kawempe, Wandegeya, Gayaza road, Mulago hospital, Makerere University, Nakulabye, Kololo and Kamwokya in Kampala.

High Costs

Substation maintenance and improvement is a major cost for the electricity sector and ultimately, the taxpayer.

The 32/40MVA power station is among the biggest in Uganda and houses assets of the electricity distribution company; Umeme, and UETCL.

The damaged Kampala North transformer was estimated to cost US$4,390 but the real costs are in the lost businesses and disrupted lives.

As soon as reports of the fire went out, there was anxiety about the fate of patients in the neighbouring Mulago National referral Hospital. But Mulago Hospital spokesperson, Enoch Kusasira told The Independent that the hospital has three generators that were used to supply power until Umeme power was restored.

“There is always an emergency budget for such occurrences,” he said, “This being a life-saving centre needs to be alert 24 hours to live its mandate.”

He, however, said he wishes for a lasting solution to the fires at the station.

The Energy and Mineral sector performance report 2008/09-2010/11 shows that there was an upgrade at Kampala North substation of 32/40MVA, 132/33kV to improve on quality and reliability of power supply.

There were previously two transformers only at the substation that could not withstand the over load. Two transformers of 132kv were installed at a cost of approximately US$1 million each from ABB Ltd, a Zurich-based global supplier of transformers and other technologies.

The Independent was unable to get further details of the costs involved from UETCL but information from the national electricity distributor, Umeme, are illuminating.

In a document titled “Umeme Limited 2012 Investment Verification Report” compiled by the Uganda Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), of the Shs94 billion investments on network assets that Umeme reported, substations consumed about 17%. The only higher investment was in new connections.

The same report notes, however, that unfortunately; most of the work on the substations, 31%, was done after the transformers had blown.

The report says well-maintained transformers should at least serve their useful economic lifecycle of 20 years. Instead, the report notes, most of the Umeme transformers or 34% are being replaced within one year of installation.

Looking ahead

Otim, the UETCL, spokesman was not sure when normalcy would be restored since, he says, there was far-reaching damage on the transformers.

“We have since shifted the load of the affected transformer to Mutundwe and Waliggo substations while the balance was taken on by Kampala North transformers 5 and 6 until the damage is fixed,” he says.

According to him, tests on the affected transformer are underway and procurement to fix the damage has started and is expected to continue to early next year.

Otim’s comments are in line with estimations by Ronald Lugoloobi, an Engineer and Project Manager with ATC, who said the shortest time to get a replacement for a transformer of that size running can be two months and that is if there’s a spare one stored nearby.

“If a utility has to order a new one from the manufacturer, it could take six months or up to two years to deliver,” he said.

To avoid such disruptions and costs, he said “substations should be run by efficient teams with frequent checks”.

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