Nigeria poised to be a renewable energy giant: A young technologist’s perspective

  • On February 21st, while speaking to young Nigerians on exploring the employment market at the 2019 BRF Gabfest in Lagos, the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola declared that Nigeria is a continental leader in renewable energy. I remember scoffing when I came across the headline.

    In case you are wondering, I am Nigerian and I am patriotic, but I like to think of myself as thoroughly grounded in reality. We have lots of developmental issues plaguing the country, so the thought that we are making technological advances in any respect seemed ludicrous.

    However, the minister was pretty self-assured when he mentioned some of the feats we had accomplished as a nation, citing large scale projects like Kainji, Shiroro and Jebba dams – all hydro-electricity sources that the country has relied heavily on for decades.

    “So, what is now fanciful that is being sold today is solar, as a renewable form of energy but Nigeria has not been a back player in renewable energy. We have been a leader in the continent.” He added that that similar projects such as Mambilla - which is considerably larger than any of the dams currently in use- is underway, not to mention the 6 hydrograph projects that the government is about to embark on.

    It was then I realised that somehow when we think of renewable energy, we only think of solar energy but there are other forms and the concept is not as new as we assume. I decided to do some research to ascertain the strides being made in Nigeria. As icing on the cake, I had a chat with a young man already making laudable strides in the sector.

    Renewable energy in view

    When we talk about renewable energy, it is not a synonym for solar power. As the minister has rightly pointed out, there is also such a thing as hydro-electric energy, but that is not all.

    My Energy Gateway has pointed out 5 basic renewable energy sources as:

    • solar (the most popular in Nigeria) – harnessing the energy of the sun
    • hydroelectric – kinetic (energy in motion) energy found in water bodies is used
    • biomass – gotten organically from recently living plants and animals.
    • Wind – harnessing wind energy
    • Geothermal – use of steam from heated water bodies to generate power

    Other forms of renewable energy are hydrogen and fuel cells and ocean waves.

    What is common to all these renewable energy sources is that they are sustainable. They are always replenishable and inexhaustible unlike non-renewable energy such as crude oil. This is why there is growing agitation for dependence on these sources of energy to conserve the non-renewable ones.

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    Current status of renewable energy in Nigeria

    In truth, Nigeria is abundantly blessed with both renewable and non-renewable energy, so we have all that it takes to make a seamless shift from one to another to boost our economy and of course, save the planet.

    In spite of this obvious course of action, Nigeria is yet to take her place. The country still has one of the lowest electricity consumption rates on the continent.

    So many administrations have attempted to take the right step, only to fall short of the people’s expectations. In 2015, the Federal Ministry of Power put forward National Policy on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (NPREEE). The policy targeted the generation of 8,188 megawatts by 2020 and 23,134 each year from 2030.

    One time, solar energy developers were contracted to deliver 1,000 megawatts while Katsina state government focused on a wind plant. Also, there are at least 17 small and medium hydropower plants being built across the nation, in addition to the project of constructing Zungeru Dam to generate about 700 megawatts.

    As commendable as these efforts seem, it is sad to note that they are yet to yield any tangible result as the energy supply in the nation remains stagnant.  

    The current state of renewable energy in the nation speaks of a nonchalant attitude which will continue to rob Nigeria of technological and economic clout, as well as a show of concern for the environment.

    However, despite how bleak the situation seems, there might be hope that Nigeria can become a renewable energy giant.

    One man’s sojourn into renewable energy

    To throw more light on this subject, I caught up with an impressive young man, Abraham Audu, a fourth-year student of Ahmadu Bello University who won a $5,000 grant through the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) Grant and owned his own renewable energy solutions company.

    Quite a resumé for a 21-year old!

    Explaining how he came to be a renewable energy solutions expert, he remarked that the journey began in 2016 when he became consumed with the desire to find more sustainable ways of providing hot water for everyday use in homes having seen firsthand, in his home, how expensive it was for a large household to depend on cooking gas as the only source of fuel.

    Fortunately, he learnt of the grant that would change everything around that same period and pursued it half-heartedly. To surprise, he was offered the money for his cutting-edge idea of a solar-powered water heater.

    By 2017, he had modified his design, and the Periva Solar Water Heater was invented when he was 19 years old. He revealed that lately, he has been active in the solar Photovoltaic and Inverter Systems space.

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    Speaking on whether or not his tertiary institution had directly influenced his success so far, he was clear as he insisted that it had.

    When I wanted to begin work (on the heater), I sought a place that would afford me speed and flexibility and the only available place was the Mechanical Engineering Workshop, and being a Chemical Engineering student, I was worried that I would be denied access. Shockingly, the chief technologist, Mr Yusuf was gracious and even excited!

    He did not only give me access to the workshop but assigned staff to help me and went out of his way to ensure I participated in competitions that gave me the opportunity to showcase my work. So, yes, my tertiary institution played and is still playing a huge role in my journey.

    I believe it is the lack of initiative on the part of students to leverage existing platforms that kills the enthusiasm of the system to further invest in technology. Now, the academic system is not totally without blame, but I feel that if students become more proactive in endeavours of actual development, they would get support from the system.”

    Audu highlighted the diverse applications of renewable energy as ranging from powering homes (electricity), cooking, powering automobiles, aeroplanes to “just about anything you can think of.”

    Assessing the widespread adoption of renewable energy across the world, he noted that solar energy, in particular, is gaining grounds really fast in Asia, Europe, North America and East Africa. He pointed out, “This adoption on a policy level drives the penetration as the business side also gains traction, seeing that demand will continue to increase and massive commoditization will reduce the cost per watt.

    In Africa, a major challenge facing the renewable energy sector is the initial cost of acquisition of renewable technology because most people are aware of the benefits in the long run but lack the finances for the initial investment.

    Therefore, green energy amortisation is needed to allow individuals and businesses who can’t cover the initial cost, pay a deposit and then sort out the rest through monthly payments.  This will be especially helpful to SMEs whose businesses usually get stifled because they cannot afford such capital injection at once.

    Another solution would be to set up a power grid or mini-grid and have homes or businesses in the area pay for power as they would a regular metered system. In this way, they each don’t have to acquire solar inverter systems.”

    He expounded his point of view, “One noteworthy jump I have seen in Africa is the solar-powered Rural Entrepreneurship Center (REC) by Strive Masiyiwa which is to provide a pay-as-you-go solar power at zero initial capital implication, and which dramatically brings down the barrier to adoption.

    So, in general, we’re in a good place, but more policies to support the institutionalisation of renewable energy will go a long way in boosting renewable energy adoption across the board.”

                             Abraham Audu, the inventor of Periva Solar Water Heater

    When asked how expensive solar energy is at the moment, he responded, “Well, what we offer at Periva Energy Systems is 1 watt-hour of power costs between N 87 to N 103 to set up and will last between 2 to 5 years, depending on how the system is used.

    It is actually a game of quality now because lower costs per watt exist but other factors like total system lifetime efficiency and scale matter.

    Larger scale systems as found in power grids are much cheaper, and that is why it should be the goal of the sector.

    So, a 1kva system – the slightly more powerful substitute of an 850VA gasoline generator, popularly known as ‘I pass my neighbour’- will go for something between N 130,000 and N 365,000. It depends on how much backup time is required and the general lifespan of the system before the components will need to be replaced.

    Nonetheless, prices are expected to go significantly lower as commoditization kicks in.”

    On his forecast of what renewable energy in Nigeria will look like in the near future, going by current trends, he said, “I can deduce that Nigerians are becoming more proactive in strategizing and I anticipate a tipping point where it (renewable energy) will be backed by the bandwagon effect, especially solar inverter systems, such that the average home will have an entry-level solar inverter backup power system rather than the notorious gasoline generators.

    We have seen the bandwagon effect happen in the telecoms industry and with smartphones, so I expect the same for this sector.”

    In a bid to encourage other young people, he shared opportunities that they can leverage to pursue their interests in science and technology.

    There are numerous grant opportunities and mentoring platforms such as the TEF grant which helped kick-start my career in green energy. There are others at the national and international level, and it is all about being determined to put in the work. Websites like Opportunities for Africans and Opportunity Desk are great platforms to search for opportunities. If young people follow through, they might be lucky enough to get a head start in solving the next big challenge in energy, agriculture and a myriad of other social challenges.

    I also believe that as a youth in Africa who wants his/her innovation to stand out, one must build skills in line with our biggest challenges as a continent, such as coding, business development etc. in this way, we will be making the most of our situation. More so, considering the fact that we lack access to leading technology, YouTube is a great resource to follow what is going on at the global level and enable one to be strategically positioned in the value chain of an individual’s chosen industry of interest.”

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    There is no point in debating if renewable energy is the way forward. It will preserve our non-renewable resources, conserve the environment and foster development through increased supply of electricity, which always drives technological advancements.

    Nigeria has all it takes to move from its present total output of 3,500 megawatts - 3,800 megawatts where non-renewable sources like thermal gas and coal account for 80% - 85%. What it requires is the right set of policies that will prioritise renewable energy. These policies should be focused on making renewable energy a cheaper sector to enter by reducing taxes and providing affordable financing options. Also, the sector should be made more attractive to foreign investors so they would be moved to invest.

    I really believe that Nigeria is poised to become a renewable energy giant, if only we tighten our belts put in the work required just as Audu advised.

    Click this link to watch a video demonstration of Periva Solar Water Heater by the inventor, Abraham Audu.

    Photo credit: Periva Energy Systems

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