J.J. Omojuwa: Nigeria’s Energy Mix; A Conversation We Must Have Now

Africa’s installed capacity of power is 90GW. That is about the equivalent to Germany’s installed capacity from wind and solar sources alone. This tells two major stories; Africa is actually more power poor than it is poor in other instances when compared with other countries – before you even begin to do a country by country comparison between an average African country and say a European country or even a South East Asian one. It helps to bring it back home quickly: according to mecometer.com, Nigeria’s installed capacity is 5.9GW (2013 numbers) while the same list places South Africa at 44GW. In fact, when you take away South Africa’s numbers from that of the other sub-Saharan African countries, what you have is an entirely dark reality. More than anything else, Africa has an energy challenge; in Nigeria, it appears we have now finally realised this and for once, the Nigerian masses are actually demanding power more than they have done in a long while.

This has spurred a lot of initiatives and commitments from the Nigerian government. The most bizarre of the lot has to be the now advanced plans for nuclear energy. Note that Nigeria is essentially looking to derive its future energy from a source that is actually being phased out by the likes of Japan, Austria, Belgium, Philippines, New Zealand (some 90 per cent of its energy mix is via renewables – and Germany. While many countries initially considered phasing out nuclear power generation, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster accelerated commitments. This actually further spurred investments into renewable energy. By 2022, Germany intends to have closed all its nuclear plants and does not intend to generate any more power via this source. The German Energiewende is essentially a commitment towards phasing out nuclear power by 2022 and a correlational development of renewable energies in the power sector.

A recent study trip to Germany showed why this commitment was not just about energy of itself but the source of the energy. The visit to Lusatia was the most telling. “God created Lusatia, the devil put the Lignite beneath its soil” is a Sorbian proverb. The proverb derives its essence from the unwholesome and unfortunate reality of lignite mining. Lignite mining is quite expensive. Beyond the cost of investment, there is the environmental cost, let alone the carbon footprint. For instance, the price of water in Berlin is apparently set to increase by 30 per cent because of new water treatments necessitated by coal mining. There is the cost of displaced people as the mining area is not habitable. Today, billions of dollars have already been invested in turning old mining sites into artificial lakes. It will take years before these artificial lakes themselves get to support life because of their understandably high acidic content. Coal is an essential source of energy globally – it provides about 40 per cent of the world’s total electricity, it is also responsible for some 39 per cent of the world’s total CO2 emissions. China’s deadly air pollution has more to do with coal mining than anything else. Coal mining has come at a great cost to the world. Nigeria is now vigorously pursuing coal as one of its sources of power. This is understandable because two factors make it a rational pursuit; Nigeria has a vast deposit of unexplored coal and the country is power poor. That Nigeria is in pursuit of coal mining to power its economy should not be an issue, at least not as much an issue as whether Nigeria knows exactly what it is getting into.

We must weigh all the costs from the beginning. A lot of communities where coal mining has since stopped are still paying some of these costs. We must also commit to an energy plan that captures our energy mix on a decade-by-decade basis. On this one, it would help to plan backwards. For instance, what sort of energy mix do we want by 2050? That answer will determine the steps we intend to take towards that. It will inform our investment priorities in the different energy sources available to us. Renewables now have an increased energy efficiency and there has been a telling increase in the adoption of renewable energy in Nigeria – especially in off grid communities – but we need to do more. There is no gainsaying that the energy of the future is renewable energy. We are seeing the consequences of climate change even in our own country –there is a telling correlation between Lake Chad losing some 90 per cent of its water content and the increase in violence in that region. When resources like vegetation are lost to desertification, there is often a telling increase in violence. The herdsmen challenge is a telling consequence of climate change.

Recent international meetings have shown that governments around the world have now fully come to the acceptance that we must do better with the management of our environment. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that power generation from nuclear plants and coalmines will be anachronistic by 2050, or 2080 at most. The signs are there. If Nigeria is not planning an energy mix of 2050 and beyond built on renewables, then we are planning to again be part of the chasing pack on that front when that future comes. And it will come soon enough.

One did a round of travelling within and outside Nigeria stating that if the country’s oil does not dry up, the price of oil will certainly plunge due mostly to the improved energy efficiency of machines, investments in shale oil and renewables. Four years on, that happened really quickly. There was even an “expert” who said at the time, “the price of oil will remain high for many years to come.” We cannot commit to power generation projects with this ever present “low hanging fruit” mentality, our plans must be holistic and we must have the future in mind. We are where we are today as a country because those who led us here hardly thought of the future; we continue to pay for the seeds of corruption and lack of discretion of years past. If we miss it today, our next generation and that after them will pay. The present reality of every country you see today was not determined today,it was determined in years past.

Every decision comes with a cost; even renewables have their own challenges – complaints against the use of farmlands as solar farms persist and the efficiency of renewable energy products are only two of those. The most important thing is to lay all the costs and benefits – including remote and immediate ones – on the table and then decide which we can afford, not only in terms of naira and kobo but also in terms of what we end up doing to the environment and the people affected. The Niger Delta will battle environmental issues long after the last drop of oil is taken off the ground. Did we for instance factor the cost of the clean-up in the contracts we signed with these oil companies several years ago? We must do better now!

I believe in creation. When God created the world, He started out by creating Light. This is very instructive. Light/Power is the foundation of development. No country has ever attained development without generating the necessary power needed to drive its industries and economy. Nigeria must commit to developing its power sector but whatever we do, we must do it with the future in mind. If we don’t, we will be paying more tomorrow for the gains we assume we will be making today, even if we pretend these gains are without dangerous and deadly costs. About time a robust conversation on Nigeria’s energy mix of the future got started. We don’t have to wait till we start doing 40GW before deciding the sort of distribution by source we want the power to come from. The business of power is everyone’s business.

This piece can also be found in the paper and online edition of the Punch Newspaper, 1st June, 2016