Many Nigerians believe the only way to solve the age long electricity crisis in the country is through independent power generation, as they have since lost faith in the government’s ability to decisively solve this problem that has significantly stunted the growth of the Nigerian economy for years now. Well it will be difficult to blame people trying to meet basic electricity supply needs and also keep businesses running without much hassle.
As we now know the environmental threats and inconveniences power generators cause, it is quite encouraging to see some effort from the government, research institutes and private stakeholders on the development of alternative energy sources for power generation. Solar energy, which is the most abundant of all the available renewable energy sources, has been making raves of late and I believe it is about time we started taking the prospects of this energy source more seriously.
Considering the current issues with unbundling the power sector, deregulation and increase in generating capacity, we can begin to pick some positives from the evident change in approach by some factions of the government regarding solar energy. Do not get me wrong, Nigeria’s interest in solar energy dates back to decades ago but the subsequent effect before now has been drastically minimal.
Besides the abundant oil and gas resources that we currently hold, Nigeria is still fortunate to be situated in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region described by the International Council for Science as having the world’s best solar resources. Nigeria has 485.1million MWh/day of solar energy in natural units and we enjoy an average of 6.2 hours of daily sunshine. Despite this, approximately over 60% of Nigeria’s 170 million people lack access to electricity supply. Our main sources of electricity come from hydro and gas and we currently have an installed capacity of 5,600MW of electricity but generate less than 5000MW due to a myriad of issues.
The use of solar electricity systems aids the capture of solar energy using photovoltaic (PV) cells which convert the sunlight into electricity. This resource has been found to have the capability of providing more power than all the fossil fuels we currently hold if properly harnessed and used to generate green and cheap electricity. Eventually, it can play a part in reducing our huge dependence on fossil fuels like crude and gas for power generation.
According to the United Nations, rural-urban migration in Sub-Saharan Africa will have increased by 87% in 2030 from the 1950s. Putting Nigeria in mind, this will definitely mount more pressure on the existing electricity infrastructure which has not been significantly improved for decades now despite the government’s target to generate 297, 900MW in the year 2030.
One of the key challenges in investing in solar energy is the initial capital outlay which is high. According to reports, solar panels are expensive to install and maintain. Dr Aliyu Modibbo Umar, the former FCT minister was quoted as saying it costs up to N500, 000 per panel and another source says it costs up to N200, 000 to maintain. Nonetheless, more recently, the cost of solar technology has reduced by 40% in the last two years. Our neighbours Ghana last December announced plans to build the biggest PV solar power plant in Africa generating 155MW and will increase its generating capacity by 6%. According to Blue Energy, the UK firm behind this deal, the reduction in costs and an enabling feed-in tariff policy played a key role in helping the project kick off.
Another challenge being faced in the use of this energy source is the maintenance and day to day running of the solar infrastructure. There appears to be insufficient personnel with the technical wherewithal to manage these facilities and ensure they are running up to speed. In 2005, there was a remarkable feat achieved by the Lagos State government in solar energy installations when a rural solar electrification project was launched at Onisowo Village in the Amuwo -Odofin Local government Area- a village that was cut off from the national grid. In the past two decades, states like Zamfara, Bauchi, Benue, Bayelsa and Rivers have also partnered with the World Bank and the Energy Commission of Nigeria to carry out similar projects in rural communities across the country. Despite the complaints on the efficiency and maintenance of these facilities, we have seen that we have the capability to put these structures in place which we can pick positives from and definitely build on.
It is of great importance that we speedily tap into alternative energy sources that are cleaner and safer due to the country’s vulnerability to climate change. Since we have established existing and growing interest in this technology, the government needs to assist significantly in funding domestic solar energy research in research institutes and universities. Government subsidies will also be helpful in the importation of solar panels and other equipments that cannot be manufactured locally. This will support independent investors and individuals who have interest in the energy source.
Borrowing from the UK’s feed-in tariff concept, the government can also encourage independent electricity generation through solar panels by providing more incentives for consumers and suppliers who choose to invest in this source. It will always be soothing to the ear when you know you will get rewarded for generating your own electricity. Installing and understanding this infrastructure is still considered by many as technical and expensive, but through extensive awareness programmes and public and private sector initiatives, this process can be simplified and will eventually become cheaper to install and use in the long run.
Finally, on affordability, Nigerians have shown that they can invest money on power generation when presented with a better alternative. We can see the percentage of people using power generators and inverters in both rural and urban cities in Nigeria which gives us a picture of how they will handle the prospect of solar energy if the installation process is simplified and equipments are cheaper and readily available.