In its first year of operation, when it took over from the state system some thirty two years ago, Elcom produced 56 Gigawatts of power for only eight thousand consumers. Today fifty five thousand consumers are regularly using more than 620 gigawatts. For the people of Papua New Guinea power means progress and the nineties have been record-breaking years in the generation of electricity. Approximately 75% of this power is generated from hydro sources and 25% from diesel or gas thermal power stations.
Mountainous countries typically produce cheap power from water sources but in PNG, mountainous though it certainly is, hydro power is never an easy option. The rugged terrain and harsh conditions, which include both drought and flood, and the long distances between the best sources and the populations they might supply, have meant that Elcom’s constant search for new dam sites and plant locations has only too often been frustrated by financial considerations.
“The hydro potential is immense”, says Chief Development Engineer and Deputy Director, Sev Maso. “The dam project on the Purai river west of Port Moresby, for example, would produce about 2300 mega watts, compared with the daily consumption in the capital of only 65 megawatts. But the development costs and the costs of high voltage cable transmission to get the power to the city mean that it won’t be viable for some years to come. But the potential is certainly there!”
Elcom was set up by government statute but it is required to act as a commercial body – in fact it has to show a minimum 10% return on capital. It has been hard hit by recent circumstances. Heavy electrical generating equpment has to be imported and paid for in foreign currency. Servicing the consequent debt with last year’s devalued kina hit the profit and loss account hard. Then just to compound matters the eruption of Vulcan which partly destroyed the city of Rabaul, simultaneously took away one of Elcom’s major profit centres. At the same time it scarcely needs saying that Elcom supports the government’s policy of bringing power to the majority of people who live in the rural areas. That very often this means an unprofitable investment which must, of necessity, be covered by the profits generated in the heavily populated centres where economies of scale are possible.When villages are first connected to the supply, Elcom’s Minimum Service Supply Kit, which simplifies domestic connections, comes into play. So popular is it that demand regularly outstrips the manpower that can be allocated. In villages which are built over the sea the kit is sometimes installed using low-voltage bundled aerial cable.The major hydro schemes have certainly contributed to Elcom’s capacity to fulfil its obligations to the rural people. The K100 million Yonki Dam Project for example, completed in 1992, not only contributed a significant increase of generating power from the coast at Lae and Madang right up into the Highlands of Mt Hagen and Wabag, it also produced spin-offs like sixteen kilometres of local roads and the creation of the Arona Valley Development Authority.
Established with assistance from Elcom, the authority has helped to transform the kunai grasslands into profitable coffee estates. It takes a leading role in the development of an effective village communication system and the provision of extension services in health and hygiene throughout the valley. Village produce now travels across the reservoir created by the dam, using a boat service set up by AVDA.
Overhead power lines are a common sight in the valley and of course in all the areas where electricity is available, but 4000 kilometres of such cables make life unusually difficult for Elcom’s maintenance engineers. Tree growth 3 degrees south of the Equator is rapid and frequently threatens the company’s lines and pylons. The problem is exacerbated by the reluctance of tree owners to allow trees to be cut. In a dangerous partnership with the trees, lightning, rain and wind take their toll too.
Indeed nature is always likely to be the enemy of the power providers in PNG. In 1993 a tropical cyclone passing over the north east of the country brought enough heavy rain with it to flood the Warangui River near Rabaul and put the hydro power station there out of action from January until March. Thousands of tons of silt and rocks were deposited into the water intake. A t the other extreme a severe and prolonged drought in the Port Moresby area threatened the Rouna hydro-power supply for the capital throughout much of 1992 and 1993.
It may surprise people to learn that PNG’s top class hotels, especially in the capital, are some of Elcom’s largest customers. Air conditioned rooms, conference centres, bars and restaurants all use massive amounts of power. The swimming pool, tennis courts and gym, pile on even more. Indeed, without electricity, these top hotels would find it hard to meet the comfort and convenience standards which their customers demand.
And the price is not unduly high. Elcom’s prices have fallen in real terms over the last few years and there’s an outstanding commitment that any electricity price increases will be less than inflation.
While there is still much to do before all this country’s people can enjoy the benefits of electricity, expansion must of necessity be carried out carefully. It’s unlikely that we will see projects like the big Yonki Dam in the near future. What we will see is concentration on improvement to service, a more reliable supply, greater efficiency and a large emphasis on working in partnership with customers for the good of the country. Whether it’s electricity for homes, to allow people to enjoy a better lifestyle, or electricity to power the growth of business and industry, Elcom plans to work with the people.