Avoiding the pitfalls of relying on renewable energy

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

One thing that Nigerians have always wished for and never got in the past decade is steady power supply. Governments before and after now grappled with the problem but nobody has come up with the panacea to that seemingly intractable problem. Recall that when the OBJ administration boasted that it would tackle the power problem within six months of his administration’s inception but failed, most Nigerians were disappointed and anybody who knows how indispensable power supply is to the economy would not blame us for being this sceptical of whatever efforts anybody seems to put in. Because of the indispensable role that power plays in the domestic and economic lives of our people, it therefore stands to reason why most people and government institutions now rely on power generation machines both as backup as well as alternative sources of power.

Despite the caution and the scepticism that has trailed President Yar’Adua’s plan to provide Nigerians with 6000 megawatts of electricity by December 2009, one thing however gives room for great expectations. And that is that the plan is predicated upon the president’s plan to resort to non-conventional methods of generating power akin to what obtains in most of Europe and the Americas. Today, because of the danger that reliance of fossil fuels has on world climate, most countries in Europe and the Americas have decentralized their energy sources from a single power source. They have come to the point where, using the latest technology, they harvest power from the sun, the wind, water, food, geothermal and waste from diverse sources to produce power that is channelled into a national grid. The popular name given to this process is known as ‘renewable energy’, which is derivable from the fact that these sources of power are infinite, and therefore are renewable, quite unlike the precarious nature of crude oil by-products like gas and fuel. At present, the world gets 34 percent of its energy needs from oil, 21 percent from gas, 24 percent from coal, seven percent from nuclear sources and 14 percent from renewable energy.

But just the same way as great expectations sometimes give way to great disappointments, we should not expect that just because the power ministry has decided to resort to the renewable power generation option, it is already Eldorado. Take the Wind Mill Farm in Zafarana, Egypt example – sometime ago in 1982, the Egyptians set up the New and Renewable Energy Authority, NREA, to build wind mills not just that it wanted to augment the 20 and 80 percent power that it generated from the River Nile and thermal power sources respectively. They also wanted to be able to export and mitigate the hazards that power from gas posed to their environment. All of the technology and expertise and money came from Europe with the local people providing the manpower needs required to erect the massive wind mills. In spite of the fact that everything seemed to have been put in place, the 80 billion – euro project was nearly a flop. Why? The executors of the project did not do a thorough job in carrying out a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the area to find out if the project was feasible and viable or not. There were reports that even though they later found out that the mines planted there in the wars that the British and Germans fought in the 19th Century, to carve the Suez as an area of military influence, many local and international workers were killed. Apart from that, when the project was completed at great human and material cost, everyone found out that windmills would never work on that site and in an Egypt that has a lot of sandstorms blowing sand into the mills. Not even when the specialists got air-conditioners and special protection against sand ingress.

Or take the case in Germany. She is world leader in wind energy production, with a potential to generate 1,200mw, representing 54% of what is generated worldwide; Germany is also European leader in solar thermal collections and has captured 50% of the market in Europe. Now, the authorities succeeded in decentralizing power generated from solar energy. Buoyed by the fact that the ordinary man could erect solar photovoltaic panels on his rooftop and sell power to the national grid, government decided to go a step further. It invested more in wind power but this time, not everyone could participate in this venture because of its capital-intensive nature. Take the instance of the erection of a Bergey Windpower with a 10-kilowatt generator, including a power inverter and installation which costs a whopping $40,000.00. However, there was a little hiccup. The decision to erect some high-tech windmills in an area it considered safe and ‘windy’ – the famous Black forest located in Freiburg, was a big environmental mistake. Germans don’t mess with their Black forest, a treasured natural and national monument situated on a mass of hills. The valuable pine trees in that forest are closely guarded by forest rangers who know every tree in that vast place by name. Therefore when the government decided to cut down several of the Black forest trees to erect windmills nearly the sizes of a Nigerian village all hell let lose. Freiburgians began to complain, [and rightly so] that the mechanical devices which look like giant birds might scare off natural habitat in the black forest and ruin the beauty of the landscape. But even though the people who erected those massive windmills got away with it, the message was sent right through Europe that there were other factors to consider before you begin to construct masts and towers and panels and mills.

If environmental assessment evaluations are just the problems, then our power problems are solved forever. I guess this is so because anyone involved with the plan to erect wind mills and construct photovoltaic panels must bear in mind that even though relying on renewable energy can mitigate the dangers of climate change, the technology does not come cheap. Equipment does not come cheap initially. They require a lot of money to construct but who would go through all that trouble only to discover that he does not have the required manpower to maintain the structures?

So many questions begin to crop up as we tinker with the laudable plan to invest in renewable energy sources. The first is this: do the people encouraging the government to invest in renewable energy sources know what they are talking about? Do they have micro offices and departments in their offices manned by knowledgeable people who could give them cutting edge advice on the latest trends in the renewable energy industry? So many people I have talked to concerning the ‘environment’ still hold this anachronistic notion that the environment is mere physical surroundings. Some think of the environment and of renewable energy mostly in terms of solar panels and all that, and regard solar panels as the ‘silver bullet’, that should take care of the evil spirit of our perpetual dark disposition. It is not so. When discussions concerning renewable energy take place, we would just find out that this country overflows with natural and artificial methods of turning biomass – waste – in whatever form – to energy. According to Henner Weithoener, a renewable expert, ‘there is no single solution to the energy problem’. He advises also that for us to succeed in getting our priorities right in our quest to achieve 6,000 megawatts that Mr President has promised by December, ‘we must be sceptical and critical’ of the seemingly unplanned moves being made to explore the renewable energy option. Let us learn from the Egyptians again. When the Zafarana Wind Mill Farm idea was mooted in 1982, it took them another four years to come up with a policy statement in the form of RNEA. The thrust of that policy statement was that power from wind was to make up 5% of the total renewable energy accruable to Egypt by 2005, and targeted at one hundred th

ousand Egyptian homes with 500,000 villagers. Just at the turn of the millennium, they already had a well-thought out plan encapsulated in the Renewable Energy Sources Act of 2000.

Where then do we stand with our plan to explore the renewable energy option? Are the enabling laws in place yet? When we eventually build the mills and the photovoltaic panels, have we decided either to make them grid or off grid structures? Will power now become a decentralized affair, where anyone can generate power and sell and make money? If the power plants that the African Development Bank, ADB, is planning to finance in Nigeria will be in the hands of businessmen, will Nigerians then still be able to afford the costs of regular power supply? What are the maintenance costs? How will government harmonise its own plan to provide 6,000 megawatts by December, vis-a-vis the plan of the ADB?

An international finance body, International Finance Corporation, IFC, said that it invested about $463 million for the development of renewable energy in 2005, $1.105 billion for 2006, $682 million for 2007, $1.665 billion for 2008 and $3.128 billion for 2009. If that is the case, where are these projects located? What mode of renewable energy generation is involved? How many kilowatts have these projects that have gulped so much money generated?

Nigeria’s economic problems have been traced to only one source – power. Attached to this inability to generate 6000 MW before now, has been the utter lack of political will and an outdated grid system that will not allow those who can, to generate their own power and move the country forward. And until we address some of these outdated policies, our drive for renewable energy sources and for the generation of 6000mw by December 2009 is already stymied.

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