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Strengthening power transmission in Nigeria

The Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) alongside the seven Generation Companies (GenCos) and eleven Distribution Companies (DisCos) that came out of the unbundling of the then state-run monopoly – the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) in 2005 to the now defunct Power Holding Corporation of Nigeria (PHCN) were expected to fix the comatose, epileptic electricity supply industry in the country. This has been the bane of economic growth and development in the country for over forty long years.

With the vast amount of investment needed to perform a meaningful upgrade and expansion of the country’s transmission network and ensure that installed transmission wheeling capacity matches available generation capacity, it is clear that only the private sector can drive the required efficiency and funding required for the development. According to the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), TCN would require about $5 billion investment to build and implement the “supergrid” concept, i.e. a transmission network that spans a wide area, and makes it possible to move high volumes of electricity across extremely long distances. Though it sounds massive, this amount if deployed, can move upwards of 20GW of electricity to over 6,000km, meaning that approximately 100million Nigerians across the country would have access to electricity once implementation is completed, also with the assumption that the DisCos can keep up the pace. In a non-exact comparison, investing a similar amount in gas pipelines would only yield about one third of the 20GW in additional generating capacity.

TCN’s high voltage network, systems and market operations provide the required connection infrastructure and services between the GenCos and the DisCos, essentially delivering generated on-grid power supplied by GenCos to the DisCos via their feeder sub-stations. While TCN proudly announced an increase of a meager 42.5MW in its wheeling capacity from the previous peak of 5,377.8MW recorded on August 1, 2020 to “an all-time national peak of 5,420.30MW” on August 18, 2020, developing nations are recording increases in their respective grids in thousands of megawatts.

Yet again, while it is understandable that improvements in infrastructure can be gradual and require lots of well-placed effort and investment by stakeholders, an increase of 42.5MW in a country with Nigeria’s population and natural resources is not worthy of note. It is a drop in the turbid ocean of latent electricity demand in the country, suppressed by decades of absence of a robust supply by the Nigerian Electricity Supply Industry (NESI) and should therefore be largely ignored.

In a write up on their High Voltage Direct Current transmission (HVDC) technology, General Electric (GE) indicated how a supergrid would allow transmission of vast amounts of electricity generated by renewable sources like solar or wind via direct current instead of alternating current as is regularly done today over extremely long distances with minimal losses. The write up discussed the possibility of generating enough electricity to power all of Australia (about 50GW) only from solar energy in one part of the country, getting it to every part of the country on a HVDC supergrid, and possibly even using an underwater link to move excess energy to other countries like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Singapore.

With the amount of intelligent human resources available in Nigeria, as well as the vast natural resources available in the form of natural gas, coal, biomass, solar energy, wind energy and hydro, I argue that Nigeria is mature enough as a country and has the capacity to motivate big initiatives like a HVDC supergrid, rather than continuing with the relentless struggle to increase TCN’s transmission wheeling capacity in tens of megawatts.

An example of a successful supergrid project that Nigeria should aspire to emulate is Brazil’s Rio Madeira HVDC transmission line, built with a capacity of 7.1GW to move 3,150MW of power at +600kV from new hydro power plants on the Madeira River in the northern part of the country, to 44 million people 2,375km away in Sao Paulo in the south eastern part of the country. It took only 24 months to build. Amongst other lines in the country, Brazil also boasts a 2,543km-long 800kV Ultra-High Voltage Direct Current (UHVDC) transmission line known as the Belo Monte-Rio de Janeiro transmission line that is capable of transmitting 4GW of electricity from Para in the north to Rio de Janeiro in the southeast coast. This line, which crosses 80 cities along its route was started in September 2017 and completed in April 2019, barely 18 months.

A typical +600kV HVDC transmission line with a wheeling capacity of up to 7GW (the current total theoretical wheeling capacity of TCN) running from Rivers State 1,100km to Kano would take about 24 months to build and should cost about $1.5bn or less if driven by private sector. With its vast deposits of natural gas, the Niger Delta would easily provide the required fuel to power large GenCos in the South-South and parts of the South-East that would provide all the power demands of the major geopolitical zones.

Similarly, because of the high solar insolation in parts of the northern region, non-dispatchable electricity generated from solar GenCos in the north would be balanced by dispatchable power from gas-fired Independent Power Producers (IPPs) in the south, as well as power from the hydros in the north. Such a system, made possible by private investment in a supergrid would be much cheaper and faster to deploy than a gas pipeline grid across the country.

If the power sector was driven by the private sector, it would be relatively easy for investors to fund the construction of a vast network of transmission lines to get power to every part of the country. TCN is populated with knowledgeable technocrats who if properly utilised by the private sector, could easily transform the ailing transmission network in the country to a world-class system that would be at par with Brazil and other country that have a robust transmission network.

As a fully government owned entity, TCN may continue to be plagued by slow and stunted growth in spite of the gallant efforts of its staff and periodic injection of government funds aimed to spur development. The best solution therefore may lie solely in the complete privatisation of TCN.

 

Dr. Umeh is the Managing Director/CEO of Century Power Generation Ltd and the Group Chief Operating Officer at Nestoil Group.

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