Last week, renewable energy start-up Arnergy attracted $9million in financing for expansion from Breakthrough Energy Ventures with participation from the Norwegian Investment Fund for Developing Countries (Norfund), ElectriFI (EDFI Management Company) and Shell-funded off-grid impact investor, All On the only local investor participating in the arrangement.
As a matter of fact, All On is the only true local investor in the sector as commercial banks and other financing institutions continue to misread the tea leaves when it comes to the renewable energy sector.
Analysts say over 80 percent of investments flowing into the Nigerian off-grid sector are coming from outside the country. Ify Malo, Nigeria Campaign Manager for Power For All, a decentralised renewable energy advocacy, said foreign interest in Nigeria’s off-grid energy space must mean there is value to be had. So local investors who get in the game when the market has become saturated would only play catch up.
So if renewables are the future, why have local investors continue to shy away from it? The answer lies somewhere along the spectrum of an inability to predict trends, a mulish aversion to risks and an unwillingness to be part of building an industry from the ground up.
For many Nigerians, they are yet to be weaned from the false narrative about renewables like solar being unreliable and unable to power heavy equipment. There is also the concern that solar is too expensive.
But current leaps in innovation made with solar energy technology demands careful introspection. According to a Forbes report, alternatives to the most common type of solar cell today – the crystalline silicon (c-Si) are now becoming widespread.
There are other materials that can be layered in thin films like copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) and cadmium telluride (CdTe), which have not made a splash in the market because they are more expensive and difficult to produce. But innovations such as thin-film photovoltaics where microscopically thin coatings of semiconductor material onto an underlying material will result in better incorporations of photovoltaics into buildings are on the rise.
Recently, the innovation of perovskite solar cells – third-generation solar cells, composed of a calcium titanium oxide mineral which is composed of calcium titanate (CaTiO3) – are leaving the labotary rooms for the market. Their high absorption coefficient enables ultra-thin films of around 500 nm (one nanometer equals one billionth of a meter, or 0.000000001 m) to absorb the complete visible solar spectrum.
This means that the future of architecture is that every building could feasibly be covered in these cells without disrupting the aesthetic form, colour, texture and style – solar energy that essentially blends in rather than stand out for twice the output of current panels. Basically, solar panels are being reinvented and recast through thinner materials where the tensile strength can meet architectural and engineering standards while also improving the energy output.
The report said that this newer technology does not invalidate the old as solar farms necessitate sturdy constructions that thinner cell technologies might not be robust enough to meet at present. But given the versatility of perovskite solar cells, it may be possible to soon see architecture whose exterior is entirely incorporated of perovskite cell technology eliminating the need for solar cells on uniquely flat roofs. Perovskites are stand-alone-cells which mean that they can be applied to windows as well as walls and roofs of all buildings.
These advances are not limited to solar energy. In the past, the focus of the industry was increasing the total nameplate capacity of wind turbines, now the focus has shifted to ramping capacity, which helps keeps energy cost low by providing the most possible power.
Technology feats achieved by GE has led to an increase in the size of the rotors used on wind turbines thus raising their capacity. Turbine rotors are affected by two different forces: torque, which turns the rotors and creates energy, and thrust, which pushes against the turbine. Breakthroughs on turbine controls led to being able to handle the additional thrust generated by wind.
As advances in technology leads to breakthroughs in renewable energy, attention is gradually shifting from fossil fuels despite the grandstanding from OPEC. Recently, General Electric announced it would close a California gas plant 20 years ahead of schedule because it was now become uneconomical to support it further.
It wasn’t that the United States ran out of gas, but California’s aggressive clean energy goals and commitment to using renewable energy played a key role in GE’s decision to take the plant offline. For all its breakthrough innovation, GE misread the tea leaves on clean energy. It lost hundreds of billions of dollars of investor money as its stock plummeted.
Investors in Nigeria who keep ignoring the off-grid sector now may find themselves rushing to join when the ship is almost sailed.