• Thursday, July 25, 2024
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Rural Electrification Agency has delivered power to over 7.5 million Nigerians – Salihijo Ahmad

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Ahmad Salihijo Ahmad is a Nigerian engineer and renewable energy advocate. He is the current Managing Director of Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency. In this interview with some senior journalists, he spoke on plans to close the energy gap in off-grid communities among several issues in the sector. INIOBONG IWOK brings the excerpts:

The World Bank recently announced plans to deepen its energy access support in Nigeria with additional funding. What has been the result of its initial $350, 000 supports for the implementation of the NEP?

The Nigeria Electrification Project is one intervention that has enabled us to accelerate the impact of renewable energy technologies such as solar hybrid mini-grids and solar home systems, while equally expanding private sector participation in the nation’s off-grid space.

The implementation of the programme has been successful and it might interest you to know that the NEP model has become an exemplar in the off-grid space in sub-Saharan Africa.

As a private sector-driven programme being jointly funded by the World Bank we have successfully impacted many households, businesses, and healthcare institutions through the various components of the NEP.

With over 7.3MW of PV capacity deployed through 83 solar hybrid mini-grids and over 100 communities energised, the Programme’s mini-grid component has accelerated the impact expected in off-grid communities.

The solar home systems component of the NEP has equally enabled us to achieve over 1.4 million connections. As we speak, households, MSMEs, and public facilities in off-grid communities are actively utilizing these systems.

It is important to note that the current 1.4 million connections achieved through the SHS component has actually quadrupled the original end-line target of the SHS component, which was capped at 340, 000 connections.

This is equally due to the efficient implementation of the Project. There are two equally vital interventions of the NEP being funded by the World Bank: the COVID-19 and Beyond programme funding 100 Isolation/Treatment Centres with 50Kwp of solar hybrid mini grids as well as the on-going phase II of the energising education programme funding various capacities of mini grids in 7 universities/2 teaching hospitals.

With over 5 million Nigerians so far impacted through the NEP, the milestones achieved through the initial World Bank support make a clear case for additional support, which is why the World Bank is considering expanding this intervention with an additional $750 million for the programme to enable us to continue on the path of accelerated deployment of renewable energy solutions while deepening the productive use of energy for socio-economic impact, nationwide.

The sustainability of off-grid infrastructure remains a key factor in measuring impact in the energy ecosystem, globally. As an agency with a history of deploying off-grid projects nationwide, what insight can you share with us on ensuring sustainable energy access?

Yes, you are right. The federal government mandates the REA to provide energy access solutions to the unserved and the underserved, nationwide. It is important to note that sustainable energy access goes beyond keeping the lights on. Through data-driven strategies and programmes, we continue to drill down on the impact of these solutions to catalyze socio-economic activities in beneficiary communities.

While strengthening our social inclusion and productive use strategies, we are targeting the pivotal role of the beneficiary communities in addressing the sustainability question. This is why the REA is currently at the forefront of expanding the productive use market in Nigeria, working in lockstep with private sector players and international development partners.

We currently have functional pilot projects designed for the agricultural value chain as we as other MSME ventures through the Energizing Agriculture Programme (EAP) as well as the productive use component of the Nigeria Electrification Project (NEP).

The agency is engaged in deliberate efforts to further tailor sustainable energy solutions to the specific energy needs of different communities, catering to the unique energy access challenges faced by different beneficiaries.

We have witnessed, in real-time, how effective it is to strengthen community ownership of off-grid projects and target electrification programmes towards addressing the livelihood of Nigerians. For us, impact and sustainability are better measured in social and economic terms.

Only recently, we deployed 6 additional solar hybrid mini-grids across the nation, 100KwP each, one in each geo- political zone, deliberately targeted at alleviating energy poverty for socio-economic growth.

Through the same intervention, we deployed over 2,000 solar-powered irrigation pumps to smallholder farmers and agricultural clusters as well as over 1,000 solar home systems to less privileged beneficiaries.

Through these programmatic interventions alone, we have impacted over 50, 000 lives. Across the agency’s programmes and initiatives, what you find is a deliberate linkage of a community’s economic activities with the deployed energy access infrastructure.

As the head of an agency tasked with serving sustainable energy to the unserved and the underserved, how far have you been able to close the energy gap in off-grid communities? Can you share the numbers with us?

Against the backdrop of the agency’s renewed sense of urgency to close the energy gap equitably across the nation, when we resumed at the REA in December 2019, we quickly realised the need to scale up the deployment of off-grid infrastructure to alleviate energy poverty through existing programmes while equally introducing additional programmes in partnership with our development partners.

When you make an assessment of the REA’s impact footprint, it reveals a spike in the rate of projects deployed, even in the middle of the pandemic in the year 2020. Since 2020, with 130 solar hybrid mini-grids deployed and over 1.4 million SHS connections achieved across all programmes, the REA has delivered power to over 7.5 million Nigerians. Over 300, 000 women-led MSMEs have been powered and over 1,000 renewable energy jobs have been created.

The central role of energy access is clear as the Agency’s interventions are providing energy in off-grid communities, agricultural clusters, federal universities, primary healthcare institutions, and markets.

The plan is to continue along this trajectory while drawing in more private sector participation and investments to expand our impact footprint and connect more Nigerians to clean, sustainable energy.

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What are your thoughts on the 2023 Electricity Act, especially as it relates to the power state governments now have to invest across the value chain?

Activated in 2005, the Electricity Power Sector Reform Act (EPSRA) has served the sector for 18 good years. But you will agree with me that there has been a tremendous change in the sector, especially in the last 5 years. This new Electricity Act is timely and equally captures prevailing market issues that require a new direction to make the Nigeria Electricity Supply Industry (NESI) vibrant and even more solution-driven.

With the Act granting state governments the power to invest across the value chain, states now have countless opportunities to deepen private sector participation, improve investments and ultimately address the regional disparities in electricity access gaps by tailoring specific energy needs of different states to cater to the unique challenges faced by individual states.

In line with the REA mandate, and with our primary beneficiaries being residents in off-grid communities across the 774 LGAs, the new Act supports the theory of change the REA is creating in the off-grid sector by changing the pattern of the energy mix where energy is deliberately targeted at productive use equipment.

This directional relationship brings about rural development and improved living standards which continue to be the top priority of any state government.

This is why, in the last 2 years, through the support and guidance of the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF), we have created and maintained a stronger collaboration with state governments through workshops and knowledge- driven engagements. Through these engagements, we have collaboratively assessed pain points and possible strategies to deepen energy access infrastructure.

Yes, REA does have a central role to play as stated in this Act. If you look at Section 127 of the New Act, the agency is to create an enabling channel for the entry of private sector entities into the rural electrification space. The agency is to promote development and ensure the implementation of government policies on rural electrification.

In saddling the agency with these new objectives and functions, the Act equally ensures more funding for the Agency.

These responsibilities are welcomed as it only enables us to deepen our collaboration with state governments while enabling us to accelerate universal energy access.

For renewable energy technologies to improve and serve more homes and businesses there is a need for quality. Can you tell us if your agency is playing any role in improving innovation and in the off-grid sector?

Globally, innovation, research, and development are critical to the growth of the energy sector. These equally go hand in hand with the continuous development of a technical workforce for the nation’s renewable energy sector.

The REA continues to position itself as a facilitator for knowledge-driven engagements and solution-driven products targeted at alleviating energy poverty. This is why the agency has successfully deployed over 30 pilot projects on productive use in off-grid communities.

It is our belief that through this, we are able to test what works while gaining insight into how to expand and deploy home-grown solutions at scale. We equally have an active Research and Innovation Hub at the REA.

Through this Hub, we continue to stimulate knowledge-driven conversations while developing existing technologies and prototypes.

So far, we have received various thematic research submissions in addition to the ongoing technology demonstration efforts through this Hub. It might interest you to know that the REA is implementing a key component of the Global Clean tech Innovation Programme (GCIP), a United Nations Industrial Development Organization -led Programme.

With funding from UNIDO, the REA is implementing the GCIP in collaboration with the Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB), a private sector institution, and the government of Nigeria, represented by the REA, as well as the Federal Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (FMSTI).

Looking at the recent fuel subsidy removal, in what aspects have your projects helped to mitigate its effects on Nigerians and how can the Federal Government leverage renewable energy technologies to alleviate poverty and enhance rural development in post-subsidy Nigeria?

Firstly, I cannot overemphasize the importance of leveraging the countless opportunities in renewable energy to mitigate the impact of subsidy removal in Nigeria. I am happy to say that the REA already has a history of deploying renewable energy infrastructure for poverty alleviation and socio-economic impact nationwide. With 130 solar hybrid mini-grids deployed and over 1.4 million solar home systems serving MSMEs and households, the major impact of the Agency’s projects is that it enables beneficiaries to cut down on – and, in many cases, eliminate the use of diesel/PMS-powered generators.

We have seen first-hand the effect of these renewable energy technologies in healthcare centres, last-mile communities, markets, tertiary institutions and agricultural clusters. Looking at the bright side, the removal of fuel subsidy, only opens opportunities and investments for renewable energy.

For example, there are 2 key pain points often referenced by the majority of Nigerians as far as the subsidy removal goes: an increase in the cost of fuel for the self-generation of energy in homes and businesses and an equal increase in the cost of commercial transportation for commuters.

Looking at these 2 pain points, what you find are opportunities to deepen more people-centered solutions through renewables.

Leveraging renewable energy for e-mobility for example offers a transformative solution that aligns with Nigeria’s commitment to sustainable development and the transition to a low-carbon economy and it equally caters to the pain point of Nigerians as it addresses the transportation challenges exacerbated by subsidy removal.

Equally, with the accelerated deployment of SHS and mini-grids, homes and businesses, especially in unserved and underserved communities can be sustainably powered. This is why as a nation; we must continue to aggressively strengthen private sector participation and investment in the renewable energy sector, while equally ensuring a healthy business environment for the sector to thrive for the good of every Nigerian.

In a country like Nigeria where marginalisation remains a sensitive issue, does the REA ensure equity and inclusion in the delivery of its projects? How would you assess the Agency’s coverage?

For us at the REA, inclusion, and equity are not mere buzzwords. The REA is an implementing agency of the federal government of Nigeria.

In line with the government’s objectives, the agency is mandated to provide access to reliable electric power supply for rural dwellers irrespective of where they live and what they do, in a way that would allow for a reasonable return on investment through appropriate tariff that is economically responsive and supportive of the average rural customer through private sector driven approaches.

Sustainable energy access is a right for every Nigerian and through the REA, the federal government continues to maintain its objective for universal energy access. Currently, the impact footprint of the agency can be found in all states of the federation, including the FCT.

In every state in Nigeria, you find beneficiaries of REA’s programmes and initiatives. Part of our on-going efforts with all Focal Persons delegated by the State governments on the REA – state government collaboration is to continue along this trajectory through access to quality data, unique socio-economic activities of individual communities as well as the energy needs of these communities. These will enable us to continue to power Nigeria, one community at a time, equitably.

How would you assess the quality of Public-Private-Partnerships in Nigeria vis a vis the urgent need for productive collaborations to close the energy gap across the nation?

I must express my delight about the state and quality of PPPs in the nation’s off-grid sector. While there are still so many opportunities to collaboratively proffer solutions to energy access problems, we must acknowledge the fact that the current state of the sector and the milestones we have achieved thus far is as a result of the enabling business climate for PPPs to thrive.