POST COVID SCENARIO — BUILDING SUSTAINABILITY AND RESILIENCE IN NIGERIA’S OFF-GRID RENEWABLE ENERGY SECTOR
Energy Access Dividends and its impacts on the social-economic sector of the country has been laid bare since the advent of the novel coronavirus. Since early 2020, when the novel coronavirus hit several countries, we have seen the impact of this pandemic on education, healthcare, employment, and other key societal economic activities. As the global economy continues to reel from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen how the renewable energy sector has played a significant role in emerging economies in addressing the disruptions to economic activities and sustaining businesses and communities. In Nigeria for instance there has been huge use of solar systems and renewable energy hybrid systems to build isolation and testing centers across the country. This is because they were quicker, and in many ways cheaper to deploy and maintain.
In Nigeria, nowhere has the notion of resilience been more required than in our electricity sector. For decades, Nigeria's un-electrified population has increased and hovers between 80 -90million people. This poses one of the greatest energy access challenges in the world particularly because of decades of billion-dollar investments on the grid in past years, failing to deliver the required improvements in the electricity sector. Yet, the country’s off-grid population continues to increase concurrently with the country’s annual population growth. The issues besieging Nigeria’s electricity sector can be defined as both economic and structural and is straddled by the human and political factors. What is clear is that the lack of electricity has impacted about every formal and informal sector in Nigeria — from business to health, education and even the environment.
It is in recognition of this that the Nigerian government reformed the entire electricity architecture mainly through privatization reforms which were concluded in 2014 in a bid to tackle the inefficiencies and inability to provide the power need for the country. This was in recognition of the fact that the required amount of electricity for Nigeria’s current population will not be served solely by grid-based power alone, and that decentralized renewable energy (DRE) modalities are beginning to gain not just prominence but seen as a viable socio-economic growth strategy by the Nigerian government. The Nigerian government in 2017 launched an aggressive mini-grid strategy to deploy 10,000 mini-grids by 2023, underpinned by the 2016 Mini-Grid Regulation to drive Rural Electrification to reach rural and last-mile communities. This will add an additional 3,000MWs to the grid and will be welcomed by the estimated 90+ million Nigerians that remain un-electrified or have their electrification needs unmet by the grid.
However, the novel coronavirus ravaging the world has made it imperative that these plans be accelerated and gives the possibility of a positive tipping point to drive economies of scale in energy access for millions of Nigerians. This Mini-Grid push by the REA is billed to serve 300,000 households and 30,000 local businesses and increase the country’s energy access and electrification targets exponentially. This is obviously great news, however, underpinning this push to increase access and electrification targets should be the need for building resilience and sustainability into these systems to follow the exponential growth that is likely to occur when these plans and targets take root. What we need now is to ensure that a resilient and sustainable system exists to address the on-going human, social and economic challenges presented by these unprecedented coronaviruses.
The two determining factors impacting sustainability and resilience in the renewable energy ecosystem are Human Capital and Finance and both of these factors have been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus. If resilience is about people and systems then there is the need for local manpower development in Nigeria, and training of local talents to build, manage, and run these renewable energy systems. This will further encourage quicker adoption of renewable energy technologies in communities, reduce harmful emissions caused by harmful generator fuels and provide job security for local communities. Access to finance is another major challenge the off-grid sector currently faces. Local banks and donor agencies need to step up to fund part of these off-grid projects especially those catering to health care facilities.
What is clear is that the Decentralized Renewable Energy sector in Nigeria is unarguably playing a pivotal role in ensuring that lights stay on during a global pandemic, during a period when electricity from the grids remains largely unreliable, and when economic slowdown and GDP contraction is leading to consumers watching their spending in a time of uncertainty. Furthermore, the effects of climate change on the national grid impacts the ability of the grid to operate and generate electricity at an optimum.
There is promising growth in the renewable energy sector in helping bridge Nigeria's electricity gap, but there should be collective responsibility in ensuring that this is done in a very strategic and robust way. This is why the government leading a coalition of stakeholders must begin to build resilience into the plans, targets and projects targeted at the renewable energy sector in a post-COVID-19 economy. This suggests the need for more investment in resilience structures and in the people to manage these structures for our future collective good on the energy access spectrum.
*Ify Malo — is the Co-Founder and CEO — Clean Technology Hub.