Subject: EAST TIMOR: Power Situation Better, But Problems Lie Ahead

EAST TIMOR: Power Situation Better, But Problems Lie Ahead

Written by Matt Crook

DILI, Apr 6 (IPS) - Residents in East Timor's capital used to suffer from daily power blackouts last year, sometimes occurring two or three times a day.

”Electricity was a big problem. There were blackouts here every day. They usually happened at around 6 p.m. and lasted for three hours,” said Maria Ucabere, 44, who lives in Santa Cruz in Dili.

Fortunately for the residents, power has become more reliable this year.

”Now we rarely have power cuts,” said Ucabere.

Guilherme da Costa, who lives across town in Lurumata, echoed the sentiment: ”There haven't been any problems with electricity this year.”

But there is still a lot of work to be done if all of East Timor's 13 districts are to have round-the-clock electricity. This is why the government has been pushing ahead with plans to import heavy fuel oil û a quick fix that would win points for solving one of the country's needs.

Secretary of State for Electricity, Water and Urbanisation Januario da Costa said, ”We can deliver electricity very quickly to society. How can we develop this country if there is no light? No investors will come.”

Civil society groups and observers, however, have been vocal about the effects of heavy fuel oil on the environment.

”This is highly polluting, difficult-to-manage technology which most countries are moving away from or have already stopped using,” the non-governmental organisation La'o Hamutuk said on its website.

Heavy fuel oil contains pollutants, in particular sulphur, nitrogen oxides and particulates. Aside from that East Timor currently sources its power by using diesel engines to burn diesel oil, which is imported. The new heavy fuel oil plants will run on imported oil.

In March, President José Ramos-Horta called for an independent body to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project.

A tender was held last year and a total of 15 companies submitted proposals for the power plants. On Oct. 24, the Chinese Nuclear Industry 22nd Construction Co was announced as the winner of the contract.

On Mar. 2, La'o Hamutuk published a leaked copy of the proposal the company had submitted to the government in June. The company recommended buying second-hand engines and diesel generators - saving about 70 million U.S. dollars for the government, but this poses greater problems for the environment than if new engines were used.

Infrastructure in East Timor is scarce after much of it, including almost all power assets, was destroyed in 1999 by the departing Indonesian military and its militia after 24 years of occupation.

East Timor's government has found it challenging to provide for the country's 1.1 million people. While it may not be trickling through to the man and woman on the street, the government has banked about 4 billion dollars from its oil reserves.

A budget of 375 million dollars has been set aside for a national grid and three heavy fuel oil power plants with the capacity to deliver around 180 megawatts of power.

The power plants will be built on the north coast in Manatuto district, on the south coast in Manufahi and in Hera, on the north coast just east of Dili where land clearing began in February.

The Asian Development Bank's 2004 Power Sector Development Plan for Timor Leste estimated that peak power demand in the country in 2002 was around 18.6 megawatts with a peak load of about 108.6 megawatts forecast for 2025, far less than the 180 megawatts the government's heavy fuel oil plants could produce.

Norwegian Alf Adeler, senior adviser for HydroTimor, is convinced that hydropower is the way to go for East Timor. Although costly to build, hydroelectric power stations are clean, renewable, efficient and able to produce electricity for up to 100 years, he said.

Adeler came to East Timor with a team in 2002 after then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri visited Norway to request assistance with the country's energy policy.

Adeler wants to push ahead with a project in Iralalaru, Lautem district, in the east of the country. Water from Lake Iralalaru disappears into a sinkhole in the ground and flows into the sea, he said.

”With the consumption of East Timor today, it would supply all of Timor with electricity. It would take four-and-a-half years to construct and in the meantime demand will increase, so you have to depend on having input from other sources,” said Adeler.

Construction of the hydropower station would cost 125.1 million dollars, while a transmission line to Dili would cost 33 million dollars.

”After you have written off the hydropower plant, you produce electricity for less than 1 cent per kilowatt hour. You can only manage heavy oil for 25 to 30 years and then it becomes really costly,” he said.

The EIA of the Iralalaru project concluded that the project and transmission line would have only a ”minor impact” on the environment and the bulk of it would come from the clearing of the 158-kilometre transmission line from Los Palos to Dili.

As for the transmission line, the EIA concluded that ”no major impacts were identified for operation”.

The project could begin construction as early as June.

”I think (the government) should reduce the heavy oil to 40 megawatts and use new machines, then go with Iralalaru, continue with hydro, reduce the amount of thermal as much as possible and utilise the gas seeps,” said Adeler.

”The gas seeps are methane gas and the gas is in about 30 places in (East) Timor,” he added.

The government is currently conducting a tender for the Aliambata Gas Seep Harvesting Project, which will see the harvesting of natural gas in Viqueque to supply power to rural villages in the south-eastern part of the country, paving the way for future projects involving gas seeps.

But although the government has shown an interest in renewable energy, it has been reluctant to fully commit to what could be a cost-efficient and environmentally friendly solution.

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