DEVELOPMENT - 20 SEP 2019

Without stable electricity, Nigerians turn to solar

Without stable electricity, Nigerians turn to solar
Could solar energy be Nigeria’s best shot at eradicating its electricity problems? Source: Christian Aid

Each day, Nigeria generates under 4,000 Megawatts (MW) of electricity, insufficient to cater to the essential lighting, cooling, and charging needs of an expanding population.

Citizens have been conditioned to expect blackouts due to unstable power supply, which justifies seeking alternative power sources—burning biomass, generators, solar home systems, etc. These alternatives compensate for the unreliability of the grid and the shortfall from inadequate power generation.

The application of solar systems in Nigeria is enormous with various applications in small scale lighting, water pumps, and vaccine storage. Over time, the cost of solar technology has fallen significantly, leading to a rise in its application as an alternative power source for barbing salons, viewing centres, hotels, residential lighting and other electrical fittings.

In 2017, Kaduna State installed a 1.7MW off-grid solar system to serve its primary health centres and local government areas. Now, a number of Nigerian universities are looking to tap into solar solutions.

So, could solar energy be Nigeria’s best shot at eradicating its electricity problems?

On the household front, one of the most popular initiatives is an MTN franchise called MTN Lumos, which provided customers with a mini solar kit to power critical loads in the home. Crucially, the kits were provided on a pay-as-you-go basis (i.e. staggered payments) to remove the upfront cost of acquiring a solar home system.

Other companies have implemented similar schemes, usually providing solar home systems comprising of solar panels, an inverter and batteries for energy storage. Their pitch has also been multidimensional: offering households clean and reliable electricity to boost productivity.

The solar gospel is being spread further by NGO’s like Rees Africa and Solar Sisters, both of which focus on rural and less-developed parts of the country.

But not all experiences with the use of solar power have been positive. A resident in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria expressed thoughts about his SHS before a solar company called in their team for a system check:

 “If I could, I would return the items and ask for a refund… The first few days were pretty cool but over the course of six months, it could barely hold the house down for four hours. What a waste of eight batteries and it cost me [redacted] much!

A fault check on the user’s system revealed damaging installation processes, poor solar panel placement, and a host of other issues that suggested the installation was handled by an incompetent engineer. This is not unusual; in other countries, users have bad experiences after relying on subpar components.

In general, these types of reviews are standard for innovations that are adopted by a mass-market without sensitisation on how best to use them. That means that customers are probably not realising the full potential of solar home systems because a lot of them don’t use them properly. It’s like buying a Ferrari and immediately driving it through pothole-ridden streets; don’t be surprised if it doesn’t drive as smoothly as advertised.

For example, the first misstep a solar home system owner is likely to make is forgoing an energy audit to assess the ideal system capacity for their energy needs. During this process, a distinction is made between what appliance the system will power and what will remain on grid supply. Proper identification of this helps in designing the best fit for the home.

Without an energy audit, the system would either be undersized—rendering it unable to power appliances as the customer desires, or oversized—meaning the customer would likely face a bigger bill than they expect. Either way, you don’t get the reliable electricity or cost-savings you expected. Moreover, as many energy companies promise to cut down your electricity consumption by a fixed amount (e.g. 10%), it makes sense to invest in a qualified energy auditor.

Sometimes, the homeowner conducts an audit but hires an incompetent installer. Unfortunately, the installer plays a vital role in this process because the engineer is the brain of the entire system’s functionality. Because of that, scrutiny should be matched to the level of intricacy of a bank’s KYC; a process started by banks to “know their clients”, assess their suitability and potential risks of illegal intentions towards the business relationship. 

If banks can run that process for every potential customer, you also can for your prospective installer to ensure efficiency and sustainability of your system. Nigeria may be suffering from a crisis of handymen in general, but solar home system installation is a relatively new industry, and customers should be better able to identify the good ones. Otherwise, homeowners run the risk of paying a sizable chunk of the system cost to fix a problem that could have been avoided by selecting the right installer.

Another evolving part of the industry is the after-sales service—a concept that unfortunately remains a niche in Nigeria. As solar home systems are new technologies in our local context, warranty contracts—which are actually read—are particularly important.

Companies offer different services that include inverter checks, cable checks, solar panel cleaning, which is particularly important in Nigeria’s wet-dry season cycle because of the dust and dander that settles on the solar panels and reduces its performance and battery checks. Some companies even offer extended service contracts that stretch beyond the warranty period, providing a longer-term guarantee of system efficiency.

In the developed world, the adoption of renewable energy for electricity generation has been accompanied by a focus on energy efficiency; an example would be replacing a 60Watts yellow bulb for a 12Watts energy saving bulb to cut down energy consumption and billing.

In Nigeria, energy efficiency and the adoption of solar home systems ought to go hand in hand, as that is when homeowners would enjoy the most significant rewards from switching away from more expensive and dirtier alternative power sources. In theory, it should be easy to spot energy-efficient appliances as they have an energy star label. This simple process is an important step people often miss which is why some solar companies in Nigeria bear the burden of replacing all bulbs in their client’s home to energy-saving bulbs and advising their clients of the best energy-efficient appliance to better their energy experience.

Today, solar home systems in Nigeria are nowhere near as popular they ought to be, in spite of the country’s current electricity predicament. Affordability and access are major constraints infringing on its scale which the MTN pay-as-you-go project tried to solve. But, an equally sizeable barrier may be the cultural and behavioural adjustments that need to be made for Nigerians to really benefit from using a solar home system.

 

Jennifer Anya

Jennifer Anya

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