Urgency of renewable energy

The challenges confronting our nation especially in matters of development are surmountable. They present opportunities for innovative thinking, for solutions that not only solve existing problems but lead to new thought processes. New thought processes challenge the “givens”; they question the received knowledge that has been repeated over the years and are almost equated with the scriptural commandments like “Thou shall not steal”. It is an aphorism that extant challenges, which have literally defied extant solution, cannot be solved by the old way of doing things. Repeating experiments that have failed and expecting them to succeed without altering the conditions is a mere exercise in futility. There is the challenge of thinking out of the box for innovation. But it appears that in matters of energy provisioning, we have not exhausted the solutions within the box; we have not expanded and expounded the frontiers of the box for solutions to our ever growing energy challenges.

Ways, means and methods of solving existential challenges are not just neutral without implications and complications. There are developmental pathways that cost more than others in the short, medium to the long terms. Cost includes not just the immediate financial projections, balancing budgets and the “financialisation” of development but an approach that takes the whole concept of sustainability into context. We live in a Nigeria where talking and postulating for big projects seem to be in vogue. A Nigeria that describes itself in superlatives such as, the giant of Africa, one fifth of the black race, biggest GDP in Africa, etc. However, we are not able to match the competitiveness and standard of living of relatively poorer countries that do not have such superlative accolades.

The case of the Nigerian electricity sector is a clear example of how big thinking and planning in the air have stultified our development. With a population of about 170 million, we are still distributing less than 5,000MW of electricity. Since 1999, over $20bn has been spent on all manner of electricity projects and the result is all manner of excuses, apologies, blackouts and absence of value for money. Sadly, the excuses are getting longer by the day. The idea of big gas-fired plants is an inbox solution which other relatively less endowed countries have been able to implement. It is not rocket science and does not require special preparations beyond proper planning, financial and human resources. We started building gas-fired power plants without thinking of where to source the gas from. We were mid-way into the constructions before we remembered the need to start gas collection and distribution infrastructure. Indeed, 12 of such plants have been completed and cannot operate because of lack of access to the gas feedstock.

We flare gas in Nigeria; indeed the second highest in the world after Russia and we still do not have enough gas for our electricity plants. Any reasonable person will be troubled by this contradiction. Low penalties for gas flaring make it cheaper to flare gas than to invest in gas gathering and utilisation. At the end of the day, Nigeria loses the gas resources while at the same time polluting the environment. This challenge did not become public knowledge yesterday. It has been part of the development discourse for over two decades now. Yet, nothing concrete has been done to stop the flares. Yes, we have a new gas agenda and meetings upon meetings of “experts” on the issue but the improvements have not been substantial enough to scratch the surface of the challenges we face. The reforms and transformation are rather too slow and are not yielding enough value for money. Too much talk, too little results.

We still have a national power transmission grid with a very limited capacity of less than 6,000MW. The current transmission capacity cannot wheel the electricity expected from all the gas-fired power plants under construction in the event they have enough gas to come on stream. The implication is that billions of dollars are still required in new investment for large improvement in electric power service delivery. Essentially, for a majority of Nigerians to have electricity in their homes, offices and business, big ticket investments are still required. And we have been told that the finances for the investments are not available within the local domain. We need foreign investors and the intervention of volatile international capital to solve a local developmental challenge.

But the simple, quick-win and sustainable solutions that involve the people have been relegated to the background. Yes, while planning big, it makes no sense to forget those smaller projects that can add value to the system, deliver electricity almost on demand and create other value chain advantages. This is the case of renewable energy obtainable from solar, wind, small hydro and biomass. Nigeria’s poorly developed energy infrastructure, although a drawback, is also an opportunity for us to choose an energy development trajectory that leapfrogs the old ways of heavy emissions and deep carbon footprints by building a modern green energy sector. We have a clean slate to write on and we are in a position to decide what to write. It is not about any fad or new thinking in international development discourse but a way that has been proved to get energy to the homes and offices in a sustainable manner; creating new jobs, empowering the people and giving communities the opportunities to control their progress.

Do we need to repeat the mistakes of other countries with heavy carbon footprints and emission of green house gases in our quest for economic development and survival? The answer is a big and resounding No. The knowledge on climate change and ecology available today was not available when these nations started their industrial development and the world is under greater threat today that it was 100 years ago. For Nigeria, it is even a very practical challenge, not just what has been written in development literature. We face challenges with desertification in the northern parts leading to poor harvest, soil wastage and migration of whole communities with its potentials for conflict; rising sea levels in the coastal regions, erosion, acid rains, etc. Whether we see climate change as a threat, challenge or opportunity, is dependent on our mindset and our ability to adapt and evolve as the world changes. If Nigeria is unable to move and adapt, then, we face the challenge that made dinosaurs extinct; not in the sense of our dying out immediately but we face increasing poverty, destitution, crime and a hostile living environment which may ultimately make our country a wasteland.

Considering the challenges of the grid and gas gathering, there is the need for off-grid and renewable energy solutions if millions of Nigerians are to get access to electricity. But this has to be done in a conducive and favourable environment created by government legislation and policy frameworks and a populace educated on the benefits of renewable energy. The renewable energy potential of Nigeria are intimidating. According to the Energy Commission of Nigeria, large hydro power can generate 11,250MW; small hydropower-3,500MW; fuel wood – 13,071,464ha; animal waste – 61million tons/year; crop residue – 83million tonnes/year. The solar radiation is 3.5-7kmh/m2/day with the Revised Renewable Energy Master Plan projecting that solar sources can provide up to 30,000MW of electricity in the next 15 years. Wind coverage at 10 metres height is 2-4m2 annually.

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