From choosing between coal, gas and renewables for Nigeria’s energy mix; to decentralising the electricity grid and relaxing regulations, Mr. Adetayo Adegbemle, the Executive Director of PowerUp Nigeria, shares radical ideas for solving Nigeria’s power crisis. His primary premise is: “if we have been following conventional approaches for over 50 years now, and they haven’t helped much, then we need to reconsider our choices.”
Adetayo Adegbemle (Executive Director, PowerUp Nigeria): We’ve been following pretty much the same approach for the past 40 to 50 years in Nigeria’s energy and electricity sector, and it hasn’t succeeded. It therefore means that we have to change our approach. We’ve been too dependent on gas for so many years, and it hasn’t helped much. As far as Nigeria’s power sector is concerned, there are no legitimate reasons to put our eggs in one basket.
Nigeria Energy Future (NEF): In your view, what other options are available?
Adegbemle: We have coal, and all its varieties that we can use – brown coal, black coal and bitumen with varying levels of combustion capacity. Our hydro-electric resources are also not optimised. The Kainji Dam, for example, has only about 3 or 4 of its turbines working. Wind and solar are other widely available sources that can be exploited. We don’t have to kill other sources in preference for one. Besides, it’s not as if the gas-rich Niger Delta region is exactly peaceful. On power generation, each sub-region can focus on their areas of strength. There is gas in the Niger Delta, so let the sub-region use gas. This will make gas pipeline sabotage less attractive, since the impact would be felt directly in the region. In the North for example, where we have large areas of unused land and high solar intensity, we can provide solar power for many remote, suburban areas by putting them off-grid. To a large extent, this would solve the existing transmission bottlenecks.
NEF: That sounds like you’re advocating for decentralised power generation and transmission?
Adegbemle: Of course. Brazil has more than 3 national grids. Mexico has 2. In the United States, there are several sub-grids. Most parts of north-eastern Nigeria do not have access to the national grid. Instead of trying to expand or overhaul the existing grid which would be very expensive – the same would largely apply to the north-west as well – we simply need to build separate sub-grids in these unserved areas. I don’t want to call them mini-grids (really that’s what they are) so that we don’t confuse this with the concept in NERC’s mini-grid regulation. This will allow for regionally suitable solutions to our endemic power problem. Besides, you won’t necessarily need to have power generated in one region travel down to a central national power control centre as we currently do.
NEF: Seems like you’ve got some reservations concerning the mini-grid regulation?
Adegbemle: Here’s one radical idea I have about regulations – let’s deregulate; at least initially. If an organisation can generate 10,000 MW for instance, let it generate and sell to people. If any industry player can set up a power plant, as long as they can fulfill basic registration requirements such as environmental and social impact assessments, they should be allowed to. They should be able to sell power to electricity distribution companies (DisCos) without having to require a license, for now. Owing to how bad our power situation is, let us allow this for the next 5 years – investors will open-handedly bring in their money to generate more power than we imagine.
NEF: So it is still too early to have regulations around mini-grid power generation?
Adegbemle: When the draft regulation on mini-grids was released for stakeholder reviews. I shared this same perspective – “why don’t we just open up the sector for at least 5 years without regulations?” We need to reconsider the traditional way of doing things, which hasn’t helped us much. We have been regulating the sector for many years: at some point it was through NEPA, then PHCN, and now the Electric Power Sector Reform Act, what has been our scorecard? If we hold off on the rules and regulations temporarily, many investors, both foreign and local, would come in having done their cost-benefit assessments – there is a huge market for power in the country. After five years, the government can then tighten regulations. The benefit of doing this is simple: during the first 5 years, the government can learn from the industry, document progress and make more informed policies and regulatory decisions in the mini-grids space which we are yet to really explore in the history of this country.
Did you know that there is a company in Jos that has been supplying electric power within the Jos environs for several years now? It is a privately-owned company called NESCO (Nigerian Electricity Supply Company). It generates power from a small dam. Before then, it used to be a tin mining company that liquidated, but since it used to generate its own power, it decided to sell to the public. Although they go offline for a few hours a week – around 12 pm on Thursdays – they’ve been relatively successful and hundreds of households and communities around Bukuru are served by NESCO.
NEF: Are they [i.e. NESCO] free from regulation?
Adegbemle: No. But the issue is that they started when there was no regulation per se. NEPA was the only competitor they had then. Because they were not strangled by too many regulations in their early days, NESCO has been able to thrive and succeed. Imagine having such in Ibadan, in Lagos, Kaduna, Kano, Abuja, Enugu, Port Harcourt and all over the place. You would have opened up the sector to greater progress. The question is: are we ready to try it out?
NEF: Sounds interesting, but isn’t there a tendency that, during such unregulated period, we might have public social and environmental costs to grapple with?
Adegbemle: Basic requirements have to be fulfilled. Any player intending to establish a power generation plant has to adhere with existing environmental and social laws. NERC will only need to ensure collaboration with relevant ministries to ensure compliance. But really the main social problem in the power sector now is that Nigerians are paying so much for so little electricity. We need to get out of this situation in which DisCos continue to take advantage of customers. It is ridiculous that people are not given power supply regularly and DisCos keep sending them outrageous bills without proper metering systems. At this point, what we need are independent metering service providers.
NEF: What would these independent metering service providers be like? Why do we need them?
Adegbemle: Here’s why they are needed. Customers who need electricity and meters can approach these providers, who then get one of their technicians to visit the customer’s house, and then conduct an electricity audit to determine the kind of meter required. Once the customer makes payment, the metering service provider informs the DisCo serving that area of the new customer. The service provider supplies the meter and the DisCo connects the costumer. Since DisCos have demonstrated inability to provide Nigerians with meters, independent businesses that are willing to invest in meters should not be deprived of the market opportunities to do so. This way, meter providers can make money, DisCos can also stop complaining of electricity theft, and customers would be happier since they would be able to properly track their power consumption and justify their electricity bills.
NEF: Guess that can have a huge impact on promoting energy efficiency nationwide?
Adegbemle: Definitely. Remember, to make progress, we need to step aside from traditional ways of thinking about solving our power problems. Wherever there are inefficient players in the system, bring in alternatives to fill in the gaps.
NEF: Earlier on you had suggested diversifying our energy sources well beyond natural gas. What specific energy mix would you propose as ideal for the Nigeria?
Adegbemle: I think that there is a lot we can learn from other countries – Germany, Brazil, South Africa, Poland, the United Kingdom, Russia etc. These are countries that have succeeded and they have energy mix templates that we can adapt.
NEF: But don’t you think we should exercise caution in doing so? These countries are different from Nigeria, demographically, socially, politically… In fact, their natural resource bases are different from Nigeria’s.
Adegbemle: If it comes to resource base, then we should actually be exploring other energy resources that we have. Gas dependency has failed us; hydro also has its own seasonal challenges. So the question might be: can we do 25% each of gas, hydro, other renewables such as solar and wind, and coal? Which one is most economical? We can consider concentrating on the source that can give us peak value within the next 5 to 10 years, after which we can add other sources. I think coal presents an economic opportunity. Germany generates over 34% of its national power from coal, Brazil over 25%, South Africa 96%, Israel does over 71%, Poland 76%, Morocco generates over 90% through coal. Looking at these figures, I’d say Nigeria should include significant volumes of coal in our energy mix. We have loads of coal reserves in Nigeria, just as much as we have gas, and there are lots of proven clean coal technology globally.
Of course there are renewable energy potentials too. But for almost a decade now, despite pro-solar campaigns, how much success has Nigeria recorded so far? The number of MW being generated from solar so far is so little that there is no figure for nationwide solar-powered electricity. Globally 40% of electricity is still generated via coal, while other renewable energies under which solar falls are less than 5% in all. Why can’t we target around that 40%? Say, if we have a target of 100,000 MW, for example, we can pursue 40,000MW from coal – which is very possible given our proven coal reserves. Coal is an age-old technology. Coal electricity is actually cheaper than gas, and by far cheaper than solar and other renewables. I am not against renewable energy, because renewables are definitely part of the solution. But renewables are not the solution, they are just an option. While we have traditional energy sources such as coal that have been proven and tested over the centuries, renewables are however evolving, and still in an early phase of development. Countries preaching solar energy are mostly the developed countries, who are doing so from a place of comfort, that is, after achieving base energy they required for industrialisation and development. This makes it therefore easier for them to experiment with renewable energy comfortably, and not as a need. Nigeria is in dire need of power, and shying away from a proven, cost-effective and economical means of doing so is not realistic.
NEF: How about climate change, global warming and greenhouse emissions as footprints of coal-to-power?
Adegbemle: Germany generates over 200,000 MW and about 40% of it is done from coal. Poland generates over 100,000 MW and well over 70% is done via coal. South Africa’s generates about 50,000 MW, and over 90% is coal-fired. And we have not had any major global crisis as a result of any of these. All energy sources have associated environmental effects; but remember, as I mentioned earlier that there are clean coal technologies out there that we can adopt.
Research and Liaison Officer,
Alliance on Nigeria's Energy Future
Adetayo Adegbemle is a public opinion commentator/analyst, researcher, and the convener of PowerUpNigeria, an Electric Power Consumer Right Advocacy Group, based in Lagos. (Twitter: @gbemle, @PowerUpNg)