Time to take advantage of innovation for nation’s development
Cheery news is coming the way of rural Nigeria about deployment of solar energy in off-grid communities. Last week, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo launched a government initiative to close the gap in access to power in rural communities in Abuja. According to the acting president, the initiative, with an immediate goal of providing 20,000 off-grid homes with solar power is designed to be a nation-wide project in the long-run.
The initiative could not have come at a better time. Any attempt to provide solar power in off-grid communities is long overdue. Equally long overdue are initiatives to reduce the agony of urban communities connected to the central grid that has transferred its function to generators. It is logical for a government elected on the platform of change to think anew about bringing solution to over 170 million people who live in darkness occasionally punctuated by brief moments of light.
While we find the policy to provide 20,000 homes with solar power to be on the right track, the new thinking requires a comprehensive review of the country’s energy policy. Just as it is important to connect off-grid homes to solar power, so is it necessary for governments to create a comprehensive policy to solve the problem of inefficient power supply to over 100 million citizens supposedly connected to a grid that constantly carries little or no power. To put the matter bluntly, government needs to come to grips with the fact that all of Nigeria is practically off-grid.
The country’s power crisis has gone beyond ad hoc solutions. There is a need for a strategic plan to address the country’s gross under-development by decades of failure of a workable energy policy. Failure of state-owned utilities to provide power led to privatisation of the power sector. Experience of customers has been more of change of names than of methods and outcomes. While solar photovoltaic (PV) can address off-grid homes if it is approached with sincere commitment, there are other forms of solar power technology that can also reduce the pain of urban homes, offices and factories that are currently served by an inefficient grid and an erratic energy privatisation regime.
For example, the technology for Concentrated Solar Thermal Power (CSP) has advanced in many countries to the point of competing with fossil fuel energy source. CSP technology in North America has the capacity to provide four times United States’ annual electricity demand, with the possibility of becoming cheaper once the use of non-toxic magnesium chloride (sea-water salt) replaces toxic cadmium chloride.
In short, innovations in other parts of the world now show more promise of a global energy revolution through renewable energy. Government needs to develop a clear policy framework to let Nigerians, regardless of where they reside, have access to alternative sources of power. Solar energy is no longer just a back-up device to other traditional energy sources in many countries. Consequently, government must create policies that support multiple sources of electricity and further decentralisation of the energy landscape.
The new solar power policy should include provision of subsidies to those who opt to be joined to a pay-as-you-go system, rather than a power donation scheme to selected villages. This is how to make the programme sustainable and lead to a new business model in the power sector. A new power policy must also include stimulation of companies to provide CSP, such as some northern states are already negotiating with GE. Buildings should be designed to accommodate solar heating/air-conditioning roof systems, such as exists in South Africa, China, and other places. And CSP companies need to be stimulated as stand-alone utilities to compete with other companies that produce and distribute power.
In addition, the government needs to plan to become a solar technology research and manufacturing centre, like India, Brazil, Germany, Japan, USA, etc. Provision of renewable energy to complement and compete with traditional sources is long overdue, especially in a country with abundance of sunshine, wind, ocean waves and over five renewable energy research institutes. There is need for a policy to make Nsigeria join the ranks of renewable power innovators, for energy security, wealth and job creation, and mitigation of negative climate change.