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22 July 2021

Nigeria screams for international funding to unlock solar future

Population: 211,569,238 (+2.54% vs 2019)

GDP per Capita (Nominal): $2,097 (-4.3% vs 2019)

Debt to GDP: 35% (+5.8% vs 2019)

Nigeria is the poster child for the true challenge humanity faces in transitioning to carbon neutrality. While western politics continues its lip service and one upmanship, Nigeria – and indeed much of the developing world – is faced with an exploding population and demand for energy.

Given that much of the country is already without a consistent supply of electricity, the temptation to maintain an economic reliance on fossil fuels is overwhelming. But with the devastating impact of climate change becoming ever more apparent, the country is crying out for international assistance “en route” to net zero emissions.

The largest country in Africa in both terms of population and GDP, Nigeria sits as the world’s 17th largest emitter of greenhouse gases. However, over half of the country’s people are under the age of 18. With a population set to grow at over 2.5% per year, the Nigeria will become the third most populous in the world by 2050 – behind only India and China with 401 million people.

Today, with a population of around half of this, Nigeria still suffers one of the highest rates of energy poverty in the world. Around 40% of those living in the country – largely in the rural regions that are home to around half its citizens – still do not have access to electricity. Even those with power suffer from chronic power outages. In 2018, the average Nigerian grid company experienced more than 32 power cuts, resulting in an increased reliance on back-up generators across the country.

Without power, Nigeria’s economic and social problems are compounded. Children are unable to study outside of daylight hours, while women face increased risk of assault if they venture outside alone. In the absence of clean heating and cooking facilities, many Nigerian households are still reliant on biomass and waste for their everyday needs, with emissions being harmful to both public health and the environment. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the household pollution resulting from a reliance on biomass was directly linked to 500,000 premature deaths in 2018, according to the IEA.

An oil-reliant economy, phasing out fossil-fuel subsidies

Alongside this, Nigeria’s energy infrastructure is also under huge strain. Port Harcourt – Nigeria’s oil hub – has been a key point of political disappointment, dangerous working conditions, and deteriorating refining capabilities.

The oil and gas industry that is suffering from this typically accounts for around 86% of Nigeria’s total export revenue and around 10% of its GDP, which is otherwise dominated by agriculture.

The country became a part of the OPEC cartel in 1971 and produces around 2 million barrels of oil per day – 2% of the global total. Since the country’s discovery of oil in the fifties, Nigeria has become Africa’s largest producer, with exports flowing to the likes of India, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Given the country’s dependence on its influential oil industry and its past promise to double output between 2019 and 2025, it was hugely surprising to see its government announce a complete end to fossil fuel subsidies during the price crash at the start of Covid-19. The measure is set to save the government around $2 billion per year.

While the measure had been talked about for decades, many pundits have been calling for the country to make use of its untapped two billion-ton coal reserves to close its electricity gap, despite having no coal-fired capacity in operation or advanced development.

With oil prices now rising, this measure could soon face sharp objection from opposition parties. Previous attempts to wean Nigerians off cheap gasoline have led to major anti-government protests. For a vast majority of Nigerians, cheaper fuel is the only benefit they see from a state that built no social-safety net for its citizens during the oil boom. However, if oil prices tumble as expected as global demand starts to shrink, an overreliance on oil exports could send Nigeria into its worst economic crisis in over forty years.

As the country reduces its exports, its domestic fuel security is now pinned on the 650,000 barrel per day Dangote Petroleum Refinery, which is scheduled to come online later this year. The country has also promised to ramp up its production of natural gas, which already provides the main chunk of Nigeria’s electricity production.

Youth climate movement opposes oil corruption

Nigeria is currently governed by the center-left All Progressives Congress party, headed by and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Muhammadu Buhari. With Buhari’s election in 2015 marking the first time a sitting president had been displaced in the country, its democracy seems to be deepening.

The next Presidential election, scheduled for 2023, could be dictated by how the country handles its early energy transition, as well as promises around terrorism and corruption – including within the fossil fuel industry itself. In March, it was reported that Total South Africa had broken its promise to build a hospital in the Niger Delta after a gas pipeline explosion in 2012.

The country is steeped in social inequality, and despite a poverty rate that is set to rise to 45% next year, is home to some of the richest people in Africa. Nigeria’s power sector is potentially the most prevalent example of this, with billions of Naira flowing through companies that have been unable to provide a constant or uninterrupted supply of electricity to those who need it most.

Having experienced the worst from oil price and economic volatility during Covid-19, the government is increasingly keen to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

This sentiment is echoed by the country’s youth – 61% of which consider climate change to be a ‘very serious problem.’ The country is already seeing extreme heat in cities like Lagos, which has seen 11 of its 12 hottest years since the late 1990s. Temperatures across Nigeria have already risen by 1.6 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels and could rise by up to 5 degrees by the end of the century – making vast regions completely uninhabitable.

With less than 5% of the country having access to air conditioning, this is having a significant impact to the population’s health. It is also limiting the productivity of its largely rain-fed agricultural sector. Many expect climate change, and climate-forced migration, to be a significant driver of conflict in the north of the country.

With a snowballing youth climate movement, spearheaded by Oladosu Adenike – Africa’s answer to Greta Thunberg – Nigeria’s government has been forced ahead of comparable oil nations in the MENA region. Despite its growing energy demand, Nigeria’s government has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2030, compared to business-as-usual levels. This could rise to 45% if international support is provided, according to government officials.

The country’s emissions amounted to 506 million tons of CO2 in 2015, with a per capita value in of 2.8 tons per person being in a similar region to India. The ‘business-as-usual’ emissions would see Nigeria reach around 900 million tons of CO2 per year by 2030 – so an absolute reduction will only be seen if international assistance is provided.

Other initiatives in the country include those to end gas flaring, improve energy efficiency, and deploy huge amounts of solar power in the region. There is also a pressing need to conserve the country’s vast tropical forest, which has been deforested at rates among the fastest in the world to make room for agriculture, a sector that accounts for 78% of land use.

A pending solar boom, pleading for international investment

So far, Nigerian renewables have gone pretty much nowhere. In total, the country has installed just 2,153 MW of renewable energy capacity – 2,111 MW of which comes from just four hydropower plants that were mostly installed over 30 years ago. In the past ten years, just 34 MW of renewable capacity has been added. Just 3 MW of wind capacity is in operation, along with 28 MW of solar.

As such, renewables currently accounts for just 18% of Nigeria’s power supply, with natural gas accounting for the rest. In terms of total energy supply, biofuels and waste account for over 80%, while oil and gas account for approximately 10% each.

In 2011, Nigeria updated its Renewable Energy Master Plan (REMP), which outlined measures to increase the supply of renewable electricity from 13% of total electricity generation in 2015 to 23% in 2025 and 36% by 2030. By 2025, Nigeria is hoping to have renewables accounting for 10% of total energy consumption, while providing 75% of the country with access to electricity.

The Plan also encompasses capacity targets for different technologies FOR 2025 including 2,000 MW of small-scale hydropower; 500 MW of solar PV; 400 MW of biomass power plants; and 40 MW of wind power.

The largest contributor, however, should be the 3,000 MW Mambilla Dam, which is currently under construction on the Dongo River in the Taraba State of the country.

Long term ambitions – as stated in the 2017 climate plan – include up to 13 GW of solar power, capitalizing on the vast resource of both deserted land and solar irradiation in Nigeria. On average, solar irradiance across the country is just below 2,000 kWh per square meter – around 20% higher than the global average – with significantly higher values in the Northern regions.

Getting this off the ground, however, will require significant amounts of international investment. The UK has previously identified 14 projects, with a combined value of $500 million – that could help jump start the Nigerian solar sector.

Nigeria’s Covid-19 recovery plan also laid out a new framework to bring solar power to 5 million of its rural households by 2023, with the creation of 250,000 jobs. This sort of thinking will provide the best solution to closing the electricity gap, without a negative hit to the economy or climate change commitments.