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Nigeria has huge energy needs which the government has not been able to surmount despite the plethora of good policies. What must Nigeria do to overcome these hurdles and ensure energy sufficiency for its teeming population by 2030?

I spent the weekend arguing with my mother on how her generation had failed Nigeria. As expected, she struggled to accept my stance. She had been talking about a small apartment she’s building as a retirement residence far from the city centre, and I – in my usual fashion of pontificating on all matters of aesthetics – was keen that she should employ the services of skilled construction firms but she insisted she had signed on a freelance project manager of her own choosing who she is comfortable working with.

I wasn’t impressed.

Anyway, our argument went on and we started debating on what kind of roofing she should use for the apartment. After a little design tussle, I had her ears for the first time since we started talking about the project. I wanted her to spend less money on the roofing and more on installing solar panels which I believe would reduce her carbon footprint in her grey years and maybe compensate for parts of the pollution she had contributed to the planet from all her numerous plane trips around the world in the last 35 years.

Surprisingly, she warmed up to the idea of installing solar panels on the roof. We sat down and calculated the cost of offsetting her monthly electricity bills. We realized that with an initial investment of 500,000 naira ($2500), her new residence could be powered for up to 6 hours with energy from the hot Nigerian sun.

“That’s not so costly,” mother said, delighted she won’t be spending a fortune on the installation. “But then, if solar energy is this cheap, why can’t the government make it available for residential homes across the country?”

With that question, I felt a glint of hope. Perhaps Nigerians from my mother’s generation were not totally responsible for the decay in the polity.

Of course, we both knew the answer to her question. Easy money from oil had made Nigerian politicians and policymakers lazy for more than four decades. Most policymakers cannot even think about new revenue sources for Nigeria’s over 180 million citizens outside of crude rents. This is exactly why current President Muhammadu Buhari has been junketing across the Arabian Gulf to persuade oil producers to reduce their quotas in a bid to raise the price of crude.

But can President Buhari learn anything from his predecessor, former President Jonathan, who led Nigeria during a period of unusually high oil prices?

In December of 2014, the Federal Government of Nigeria signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with three companies – Solius NGPC, Peoples Home Association and Solar Force Nigeria Ltd – for providing solar power across the country. The minister in charge of power then, Chinedu Nebo said, “President Goodluck Jonathan is committed to giving power to the grass roots, therefore his government is ready to support and encourage genuine investors in the power sector.”

Despite such show of high-level “commitments” toward renewable energy by the previous administration, the Buhari-led government is glaringly more concerned about finding oil in the Lake Chad basin and raising the price of crude at the world market.

In the third week of April, another round of meetings by major oil producers was held in Doha, Qatar to boost stagnating oil prices. Similar meetings in the last six months had borne no tangible results. Nevertheless, Nigeria featured prominently at this Doha meeting with the official presence of Ibe Kachikwu, the deputy petroleum minister. In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari designated himself as Nigeria’s de facto oil minister when he patently refused to appoint one.

What if Nigerian president had designated himself the minister or deputy minister for renewable energy instead, could solar panel industry receive the support it desperately needs to successfully take off in Nigeria?

The Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN) was established in 1988 to articulate energy policy for the federation. Together with other institutions and initiatives such as Nigerian Electricity Regulation Commission (NERC) and Renewable Energy Programme (REP), the ECN creates roadmaps for the actualisation energy sufficiency for Nigeria. So, there’s a plethora of policy on energy for Nigeria. Political will is the overriding variable needed to fully execute these policy recommendations. Still a lot of work can be done to make such policies relevant to Nigeria’s developing country peculiarities.

The big challenge of switching to solar is however that of planning and practice. According to the World Energy Council, Nigerian households have, on average, access to less than 600 kilowatt hours a year of electricity. The global average is almost 3,500 kilowatt hours per annum. By 2030, the energy demand of Nigeria is estimated to hit 250,000 megawatts. From a current capacity which is less than 5,000 megawatt, the country will indeed need an energy miracle if we are to meet this daunting target.

 Federal approach: a planning pitfall

Benjamin Franklin, American inventor and statesman it was that penned the famous line, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.”

In order to avoid pitfalls, these three key factors must be considered in the planning for solar energy: meteorology, geography and demography.

Nigeria is blesses with an abundance of sunshine all the year round but variability of weather patterns across the country is a very important subject that must guide the planning of solar energy projects. On an average, some parts of the country receive more sunshine than the others due to climatic conditions such as cloud cover and relative humidity. The northern states of the country especially those which fall within the Sahelian belt generally receive greater levels of insolation than the south.  

Secondly, the geography of Nigeria is such that grasslands and semi-arid vegetation is largely found in the central and northern parts while the south is heavily forested with swamps and mangroves occurring near the Atlantic coast. Again, this confers an advantage on the north. Solar parks require lots of land. The recently opened Ouarzazate Solar Power Station (OSPS) in Morocco covers an area of 450 hectares. Upon completion of the final phase of the project, the entire complex will use some 2,500 hectares of real estate.

 Nigeria is a fairly large country but given than other sectors of the economy (such as mining, construction and agriculture) also competes for the use of land, it is highly advisable that large-scale solar energy projects such as Ouarzazate should be sited in the north where the abundance of land will not result in conflicts. These projects can also be integrated into national agricultural projects such as the Fadama.

Thirdly, population is a major factor that must be considered in the planning of solar power in Nigeria. Whilst the majority of our population still resides in rural areas, rural electrification is still at best dismal in scale and reach. At 35%, Nigeria has one of the lowest levels of rural electrification in the world. Poor urban planning of most Nigerian cities will make it quite difficult to locate large-scale solar parks in already congested slums and suburbs.

In all, any attempt to use the tenets of “federal character” in the planning of solar power in Nigeria will certainly fail. Different regions of the country have different needs and this factor is very essential in proper planning.

 Practice perfected: production and prices

A Latin idiom says, ‘Practice makes perfect.’

Nigeria is really an import-dependent economy. Most of the goods consumed in the country are imported. The same is true for solar panels. The National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI) and the Nigeria Ma hine Tools Limited (NMTL) are entities that could spearhead the production of solar panels but these establishments are ill-equipped to fulfil their mandate due to corruption, inadequate funding and management issues.

The Buhari administration needs to partner with the private sector to overcome these challenges by supporting private investors who should lead the way in the production of solar equipment. No public monies should be allocated to agencies to supply solar equipment from China. This sector must be fully liberalized like the telecommunications which has witnessed astronomical growth since GSM was introduced in 2001. The renewable energy industry is an opportunity for Nigeria to industrialize its way out of poverty. Hence government action must be focused on regulation and creating an enabling environment for the private sector to operate. This may require tax breaks for manufacturing companies and service providers.

The price of installing solar panels is still too high. In a country where the minimum wage per month is 18,000 Naira ($90), very few Nigerians can afford to go solar. It will cost about N500,000 ($2500) to install a 1.5KVA system to meet the energy needs of an average Nigerian household for 6 hours. Nigerians simply cannot afford that!

Given his obsession with oil, perhaps the biggest challenge in making a switch from crude to solar is convincing President Buhari to appoint himself the minister of renewable energy. If Nigerians can successfully pull this off, half of the battle against the fossils industry will be won.

The solar map of Nigeria shows variation in insulation between the north and the south. Photo Credit: SolarGIS

Investments in solar energy can yield high returns both for the economy and the environment.

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