BusinessDay

Nigeria’s solar wealth can solve its gas-related power shortages

Power cuts in Nigeria for either gas shortage to generation companies or national grid collapses are regular occurrences.

Data from the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) shows that from 2013 to 2020, the national grid system failed 84 times and partially collapsed 43 times.

The World Bank data on countries with the most electricity outages in Africa showed that in 2019, Nigeria suffered outages for 191 days out of 365. The economic cost of power shortages in the country is estimated at around $28 billion annually – equivalent to two percent of its Gross Domestic Product.

On 28 May 2021, Nigeria’s national power generation dropped to 3,059 megawatts (MW) and for the subsequent seven days remained below 4,000 MW, six percent below-average production. Low pressure on the Escravos-Lagos Pipeline System (ELPS) left several gas turbine power plants with an insufficient gas supply, leading to plant shutdowns and widespread power blackouts.

Unlike gas turbine power plants, gas engine power plants have the flexibility to function during low gas pressure events. This flexibility significantly lowers power production risk, a supreme advantage in the context of gas supply disruptions and systemic power shortages.

Gas is used to fuel more than 80 percent of power generation capacity, in Nigeria which has the largest gas reserves in Africa. Despite major progress achieved over the past years, gas infrastructure development and maintenance remain insufficient, and this situation combined with infrastructure sabotage results in the country suffering from insufficient pipeline capacity and a lack of pipeline connections. The condition of the gas transmission and distribution system is a major constraint as domestic supply shortages and insufficient pressure severely affect the reliability of the power supply.

Read also: Nigerian installers feel heat of soaring solar costs

What does this mean in practice?

Trunk pipelines like the ELPS require sufficient volumes of natural gas to be fed into the system within a specified pressure range to ensure that gas is delivered to all consumers along the pipeline as per the contracted quality and quantity.

A drop in the volumes leads to a drop in the pressure leading to disruptions between the ELPS and end consumers. In such a scenario, high-pressure off-takers such as gas turbine power plants can no longer operate and drop out as consumers, thus freeing up the remaining gas volumes for low-pressure off-takers such as reciprocating gas engine power plants which can continue to operate at full rated capacity.

Workable solutions adapted to fluctuating fuel supply and load

The flexible power plants made up of multiple engine modules which can be turned down or fired up instantaneously; offer a large range in power supply availability. In addition to being robust and versatile to manage the current generation and transmission side disturbances, they are also the perfect ally of renewable energies since they can adjust output in response to the intermittent nature of the weather.

Engine-based technologies also provide the best response times to effectively adapt to sudden excess or shortfall in electricity production. Furthermore, their modular format means that they can be sized to meet specific requirements, for a city, for manufacturing industries, or local micro-grids. This makes them easier and faster to install than larger gas turbine plants and facilitates expansion as energy requirements increase.

Gas turbine power plants on the other hand involve a continuous combustion process. They require a constant energy supply to generate consistent output. They are not adapted to operate on a stop-start basis, nor are they designed to cope with the intermittent nature of renewables.

To maintain a balanced system, flexible forms of electricity must be available to ramp up output at the same rate that wind or solar output fluctuates. Using small, modular, combustion engines to provide load flexibility enables larger combined cycle plants to provide a stable base load taking advantage of high efficiencies when operating at full capacity and reducing overall energy costs.

Solar as an alternative

Exorbitant electricity bills never stop coming, yet lengthy power cuts dog 58-year-old Samson Sani’s cold-room where he sells frozen foods in Ikorodu, a border town north of Nigeria’s economic nerve centre, Lagos. He had bought different sizes of generators, but they hardly lasted. He had almost given up until a flicker of hope came to his doorstep: a low budget solar-powered appliance advertised to him by a local merchant.

A one-off payment for the appliance would cost him N52,000, he was told, but payment in instalment would be higher.

Even at that, the appliances are only available for distribution in Lagos. Although the installation cannot power all of his three freezers, the fact that he can power at least 2 freezers, light up his shop at night, power his fan and radio (his major source of news) gave him some respite.

Take irregular power supply away from business owners like Sani, then 80 percent of Nigerian businesses would have solved their second biggest challenge after lack of access to finance. If the same is done to individuals, then around 55 per cent of Nigerians, per a government report, who have no access to grid-connected electricity would also have a major burden taken off.

Nigeria’s location in the tropics offers the country an abundance of sunshine all year round.

Therefore, as Africa’s largest economy and with over 2,600 hours of sunlight per year (about 7 hours of sunlight daily, on average), experts believe Nigeria has the economic war chest and environmental conditions to tap into renewable energy power sources like solar.

Estimates by the World Bank suggest that investing in solar-powered plants could increase the availability of electricity to almost 80 million people who currently have none.

This means a transition to solar-based energy could help diversify Nigeria’s energy portfolio and reduce high electricity bills, as was the case for Sani. Such transition could also stop the reliance on fossil fuels which come with attendant challenges like pollution through flaring and spillage. Like Sani’s experience, solar-powered appliances could also be a good alternative to generating sets without cost and health risks that come with the latter.

Although solar appliances are relatively more expensive than generating sets, the cost pales when compared with the cost of powering, servicing, fueling and maintaining generating sets.

Meanwhile, solar power generation is becoming cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization that supports countries’ transition towards sustainable energy.

“Solar-based generating units can be built up far quicker than traditional power plants and it has proven capability to plug the gaps in Nigeria’s energy requirements”, the CEO of Diadem Global, a power-solution technology startup, Oyeniyi Uthman, said.

“The fact that the solar units can be built-in chunks, used with inverter and battery and upgraded to higher capacity as time goes on to make them a desirable alternative to generating sets that emit harmful greenhouse gases and other air pollutants into the environment. The downside, however, is that, because the high capacity batteries have to be charged for a long time, it consumes more electricity,” he added.

Unlocking the full potential of Nigeria’s power sector

The reality today is that Nigeria’s power system faces several challenges, including blackouts, fuel shortages, financing, maintenance, demanding operating conditions, and reduced cooling water availability. The size of the gap between the country’s energy needs and its current provision is daunting but not impossible to close.

As the largest economy in Africa, with huge gas reserves and high solar energy potential, Nigeria has all the natural resources necessary to meet the country’s power needs. To realize the full benefits of this potential, flexible engine technology offers a superior solution over gas turbine technology. Increasing access to electricity ranks as one of the major drivers for business growth. Improving power sector performance, particularly for manufacturing and services, will be central to unlocking Nigeria’s economic growth post-COVID-19.

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