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Renewable energy: Africa’s next future nightmare

by on July 6, 2011

•Cudjoe KPOR, an economist writing from Lagos, alarmed  about the tremendous advances being made everywhere to move away from fossil based energy, counsels African governments on the need to invest in renewable energy without further delay…

 

 

The deliberate refusal or downright failure of African governments to start generating power from renewable energy (RE) sources against the inevitable dry-up of fossil fuels’ sources is drawing severe criticisms from informed sources. At least 600 million (m) of the continent’s 770m population still rely on firewood and charcoal for cooking and heating water, among other domestic chores. The rest rely on fossil fuels like petroleum products and gas to supply power to industries, home equipment and appliances as well as to thermal generators for the national grid.

Thus, several questions are being posed about the lack of preparedness of African countries, especially Nigeria with its large 150m population and enormous energy demand, to generate power from RE sources when fossil fuel sources dry up. Renewable energy sources now hold a pride of place, be they solar, hydroelectric power, wind energy, geothermal and bio-mass, among others for the immediate and remote future. All these yield clean, inexhaustible power sources which do not pollute the environment.

For instance, as long as the sun shines, tropical countries can rely on photovoltaic (PV) cell panels to generate electricity. Small dams are increasingly generating hydro-power. Wind mills are rotating giant, ugly vanes on the landscape for power, while bio-gas digesters (at the moment, anaerobic only in Nigeria) are yielding ethanol for powering vehicles, among others.

The question is, how capable are African countries to exploit these sources as alternatives to the pollutant, non-renewable fossil fuels and firewood?

Professor Wolfgang Platz, a German RE expert at the World Council for Renewable Energy, Paris, France, last week reiterated the advice to African governments to take the early plunge into it now. First, because the consequences of climate change will hit African countries, like most developing countries, very hard. Moreover, all countries would turn to RE in their effort to cut down on the use of fossil fuels and firewood to reduce carbon emissions in order to protect the global climate. The demand of combatting climate change, consequently, would bring forest conservationists into direct conflict with communities’ need for tree-felling for firewood.

Moreover, as global oil price is stabilising above $100/barrel, experts agreed that decentralisation of energy supply is indispensable and inevitable. Besides, the disastrous nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, has spread panic and anti-nuclear hysteria around the world to Europe and North America, countries which would have invested in nuclear power stations to make them safe. But clean and cheap as nuclear energy is, disposal of its spent fuel and safety remain big problems to date.

Above all, with global food shortages triggering social unrest and Jasmine revolutions in North Africa and mid-East, Nigerian leaders believe anaerobic digestors save food for human consumption. No wonder NNPC’s hyped cassava processing for bio-fuels assumes low profile or was quietly shelved.

Similarly, Nigerian goverment advocates clay hearths to preserve heat from firewood better than the metallic ones. But the hearths merely reduce firewood consumption without eliminating the CO2 emissions harmful to the global climate.

Thus, are African countries taking effective steps to promote RE actively as immediate future complement to fossil fuels in their energy mix and ultimate replacement if fossils are exhausted? Or predictably, they are sitting on their haunches, preaching their platitudes while importing what they can afford till the inevitable fossils run dry?

Then the world’s poorest continent would add unavailability of renewable energy sources to its mass of primitive illitetrates, desertification, forest denudation, obsolete technologies, diseases and ignorance, among numerous other continental setbacks.

Prof. Platz, in a presentation to invited guests at the German Embassy in Abuja, listed as prerequisites for success, adequate policy formulated by National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) and the relevant ministry, effective legislation to make it concrete national policy by the National Assembly, and above all, political will and fidelity during its implementation as prescriptions which will move the continent from its current negligible level till its costs are at least at parity levels with their national grids. Then RE sources would render grid power unnecessary in inaccessible and erratic supply locations.

Germany is currently the world leader in renewable energy technology construction and provision. Its projection for RE in the country’s energy mix will double from the current level to 35 percent by 2020.

Comparatively, Nigeria set itself a tall ambition for renewable energy in the Vision 2020 programme. No informed person believes it can achieve it. Meantime, the country’s meagre 4,000 MW grid supply, as erratic as it is, has made its citizens over-dependent on imported generators of all sizes to power their homes and businesses with expensive diesel in noisy, CO2-polluted environments.

Prof Platz explained that the cooperation of enthusiastic lawmakers in the German Parliament (Bundestag) and strong support from its Chancellor Angela Merkel, created the conducive investment climate for German companies to invest in the success of the programme.

Needless to emphasise, tropical countries like Nigeria would do best by tapping solar power with photovoltaic (PV) cells. The PV cells are made cheaply from silicon, widely available as sand. Costs plummet with large quantum manufactures in countries such as Japan, South Korea, China and US, the world leader in manufacturing silicon chips. But the silicon cells become very expensive when the electronic components are wired onto them.

However, in Nigeria, immense skepticism among a few successful cases trails the frustrations with the use of PV solar panels to generate electricity. According to the blame game, fraudulent businessmen did not import the recommended Lithium-Cadmium (Li-Cd) storage batteries for the early adopters of the technology. Instead, they cut corners, saving kobos, by installing regular vehicle and gel batteries which are much cheaper than the Li-Cd batteries. Consequently, instead of the theoretical 25-year maintenance-free life expectancy for the PV solar panels, some of them did not last for even one year. Comparatively, a German government-sponsored solar panel, with all the genuine parts installed at Uthman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto, is still working perfectly today, about 16 years later.

Imported cheap silicon wafers, may be the starting point for African countries, the professor recommended. Still, they need to educate highly qualified science, engineering, hi-technology manpower to wire the electronic components onto the wafers while manufacturers mass-produce them for use as photovoltaic power cells, building mobile phones, satellite communications, radio and TV sets and monitors or as heat-generating circuitry.

Are African leaders listening to accelerate science, technology and engineering courses at their universities and research institutes to graft the electronic components onto the wafers?

For, the silicon chips have enormous potential to fight poverty, social unrest and stimulate peace, prevent rural-urban migration to enter city crime pools, reliable for meeting electricity supply needs and serving remote locations which lack access to the national grid. They are equally good for providing clean, potable water. Best of all, global markets already exist for the businessmen’s wired cells.

Now, renewable energy looks glorious as the solution to Africa’s, indeed, the world’s future energy needs. Yet, complacency, ignorance about its utility, lack of imagination and mental laziness could easily conspire to turn the glorious picture of the future into another continental nightmare if the relevant steps are ignored now.

Needless to conclude, the alternatives to renewable, virtually inexhaustible energy sources are so few, the continent’s leaders better sit up now – before the fossil fuel sources dry up! Source Daily Independent

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