In this report, Arinze Chijioke tells the story of how communities in Rivers and Bayelsa States are benefitting from the federal government’s solar power projects under the Nigerian electrification programme.
Prior to 2020, residents of Oloibiri, one of the communities in Ogbia local government area of Bayelsa State – where oil was first discovered- depended on a generator that was donated by an illustrious son of the community for power.
While the donation brought relief to them after they had spent over 15 years without any form of power, their joy was incomplete, because the men paid N2000 and the women N500 monthly for diesel and they hardly had enough supply. It only lasted for 12 hours, from 6 pm to 6 am.
“We felt It was a burden to us because even after donating, we only enjoy power at night to conserve diesel,” Asa Asa a member of the community said.
The only time the generator works all day and night is whenever there is a wedding or burial ceremony which often lasted for one week. Those celebrating had to provide enough diesel.
Soon, community members stopped contributing diesel and the generator was abandoned. The community was engulfed in perpetual darkness, except for families who had their personal generators.
In 2020 however, the narrative changed after a solar hybrid mini-grids with a capacity of 67.32KW was installed in the community by Renewvia Energy Corporation under the Nigerian electrification project, (NEP).
The goal was to provide clean, safe, and affordable electricity to residents of the community who had been unconnected to the national electricity grid as well as Increase business productivity by replacing generators, lanterns and candles with reliable electricity.
Renewvia energy’ Country Manager for West Africa, Chris Ebiware said that the company did a feasibility study of 25 communities in 4 states, including Bayelsa in 2016.
He noted that it was during the site identification that the company came across Oloibiri and discovered that the community had been without reliable power since its inception.
“So, with cooperation from the community we built our first mini-grid here,” he said. “Construction started in 2019 and the system was turned on in February of 2020,” he said, adding that the company also did the test run in the same year”.
The Nigerian electrification project (NEP)
In 2018, the federal government designed a scheme known as the Nigerian electrification project- to increase access to electricity, through renewable power sources, for households, public educational institutions and businesses that are not connected to the national electricity grid.
To support the implementation of the NEP, the Nigerian government, through the Rural Electrification Agency, REA- the implementing agency, secured financing from both the World Bank ($350m) and the African Development Bank ($200m).
Among the programmes implemented under the NEP is the Solar Hybrid Mini Grids Component which aims to support the development of private sector mini-grids in unserved areas across Nigeria with a target to electrify 300,000 households and 30,000 local enterprises.
Under the Solar Hybrid Mini Grids Component, there was the Performance-Based Grant (PBG) sub-component which had a total available fund of US$48 million disbursed to qualified mini-grid developers/firms on a first come first served basis, up until the available funds are exhausted.
Oloibiri was one of the communities that benefitted from the PBG which was expected to connect an estimated 364 households while developing the infrastructure, creating jobs in both the construction phase and permanent jobs.
According to REA, Renewvia Energy Corporation, like other companies handling the various components went through the four-phase of the application and approval processes of the PBG programme, including the qualification stage, site-specific technical application stage, grant agreement signing and the verification and disbursement.
Two years down the line, residents of Oloibiri cannot have enough of the solar system. The supply is 24 hours. The company had provided metres for households who have to always recharge to get power.
From welding to dry cleaning and other businesses, the project has made Oloibiri a beehive of activities. Nobody talks about the community generator anymore. Asa had to sell his personal generator because he did not have a need for it anymore. Every month, he spends between N2000 and N3000 on recharging his metre.
“I have been enjoying the light ever since it came,” Asa said. “I wish the government can extend the same project to other communities in order to tackle the challenge of poor electricity supply”.
The solar system particularly excites Anthonia Deezua who owns a provision store in the community where she sells cold beverages. Now, she makes more profits than when she used her generator.
“Every day, workers and students come to ask me to help them look for accommodation and that means more people patronising my business,” said Deezua. “Formally, I was using a generator for business. But the noise was unbearable, and I did not always have it on because fuel was expensive”.
While business owners such as Deezua spend as much as N4000 monthly, others recharge their metres with as little as N300 and N500 which often lasts between three days and one week.
The Oloibiri site manager for Renewvia Energy, Azibasamari Amadi said that the number of days each subscription lasts depends on the consumption levels of the households.
He explained that after the project was commissioned, the company organised sensitisation workshops for community members on how to conserve energy such as switching off their electrical appliances, including fridges, fans, air conditioners and bulbs when they don’t have a need for them.
On how users pay, he said that the company entered a partnership with Paga, a mobile payment company which enables people to digitally send and receive money.
“Paga has an application that allows users to pay for power by selecting the company name and inputting their metre number and the amount they want to subscribe after which they send and have light “he explained.
Although the solar system in Oloibiri has been effective, Amadi said that electricity theft and low rate of subscription by some community members disrupt their services. He explained that on several occasions, community members who do not want to pay have tried to bypass the system.
“Our system is smart enough that whenever it notices such moves, it shut down,”Amadi said. “Also, when there is a line bridge or a burnt metre, the system shuts down instead of allowing things to develop a fault,”
He explained that whenever such situations arise, he quickly informs other members of his team and together, they try to find out what the problem is, adding that they also inform members of the community, via WhatsApp whenever they want to embark on maintenance.
Whenever the sun does not produce much energy to power the systems, he switches over to their generator which serves as a backup system. He however noted that recently, they had a delay in the delivery of diesel, because of the poor returns and hike in the price of diesel and because of that, there were disruptions at night.
“Sometimes, our expenditure is higher than what comes in because there are those who cannot afford to always subscribe and even when they do, it’s poor,” he explained. “Sometimes, when we have the money, diesel is not readily available for us to buy,”
In Akipelai, breach of agreement scuttle solar system
With the PBG, Renewvia Energy Corporation also installed a solar system in Akipelai, another community in Ogbia LG. Like the project in Olobiri, that of Akipelai which also had a capacity of 67.32KW provided sustainable power to the people.
But it did not last long after Renewvia shut down its operation in December 2021, following the decision by members of the community to renege on an agreement they had with the company at the inception of the project.
Chairman of Akipelai Community Development Committee, Davidson Omonkori said that the company had an agreement with the community to provide it with 24 hours power supply for 20 years. The said agreement was okayed by the National Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC.
Omonkori explained that households subscribed to the system after it was installed but stopped after the Nigerian Agip Oil Company started supplying diesel to enable the community to power its generator.
Agip had in 2014, donated a generator to Akipelai which is one of its host communities. However, its supply of diesel was inconsistent. Sometimes, community members had to wait for three months before the 500KVA generator comes on and that led to the wide acceptance of the solar system.
“But recently, they started supplying diesel frequently and our people stopped subscribing to the solar system,” Omonkori said.
Omokori noted that leaders of the community had suggested to Renewvia energy that they should have the generator at night-since they cannot reject the free diesel- while the solar system runs during the day, but the company said it was not part of their agreement.
“When they came, we offered to pay 400,000 because we felt it was going to be a post-paid system where we will pay at the end of the month, but they said it is prepaid and you pay as you use”.
He explained that they had also met with Agip and suggested that rather than provide diesel to power the generator which only lasts for 12 hours daily, they should pay directly to Renewvia Energy so they can provide 24 hours power supply to the community. But the company was yet to respond.
Akipelai site manager for Renewvia Energy, Kingsley Nestor, said that the company was beginning to run at a loss, hence the decision to shut down the operation. He said that the company needs funds to pay staff salaries and maintain the system for it to be sustainable.
While Omokori said that leaders of the community had agreed to allow Agip to pay for the system, Nestor alleged that some of them have severally refused to accept the suggestion because they sell some litres out of the over 14,000 litres they get monthly and keep the money.
Nigeria and commitment to energy transition
At the Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari pledged that the country will cut its carbon emissions and reach net zero by 2060.
While the target lags 10 years behind the recommended deadline which the UN along with many climate scientists would like to achieve to stop global warming, Nigeria’s commitment to energy transition is clearly visible within the government’s project, which aims to electrify 5 million households and 25 million people with solar energy.
Chief Executive Officer, Renewvia, Trey Jarrad, said that the impact of the solar projects extends beyond providing access to cleaner, reliable, and affordable energy, to helping Nigeria actualise her global energy transition mandate.
Like Nigeria, other countries are looking to invest in renewable energy which could supply four-fifths of the world’s electricity by 2050, massively cutting carbon emissions and helping to mitigate climate change.
In Egbeke, residents can finally heave a sigh of relief
After Green Village Electricity implemented a 6.8kw PV solar-based pilot project which according to the company was aimed at field testing the technical and commercial viability of adopting renewable energy for off-grid rural electrification in Egbeke, one of the communities in Rivers State in 2012, it was not serving the entire five villages that together make up the community, the people stated.
Community members could not use it to pump water, power their fridges or use electric iron. It only worked during the day and powered streetlights. At night, it always went off.
Among the villages that were completely cut off from power was Umuode which owned the land where the solar power was installed. Umuagwu, the village whose people were said to have had first contact with the company decided who to give light and who not to give. There were no metres.
“Because of that, many of us did not have access to power, except those who wanted to do the illegal connection,” Chucks Nkwo, a leader in Umuode told The ICIR, “Irked by the perceived marginalisation, our people protested and shut down the site”.
Six years later, in 2018, the company came back, after it received the PBG under the FG’s NEP and upgraded the project, moving it from the site where it was before to the community’s market square where there is enough land to accommodate the upgrading. It provided Egbeke with a 55KW minigrid.
Now, residents in the five villages, including Umuagwu, Umuode, Umuayim, Umuokwu and Umuoko have a power supply that they use for all kinds of businesses. Households were provided with metres which they always recharged.
Allegations of corruption
Years after the solar project was upgraded, residents of Egbeke have not had any challenge with the usage apart from allegations that Egbeke site manager for Green Village Electricity, Amadi Evans has not been transparent in his duties.
According to Nkwo, Evans who handles the subscription for customers always gives different megawatts for the same amount. He alleged that one of the times he recharged N3000, he got 330 megawatts instead of the usual 440.
“After it finished, I complained to him and the next time, he made it 440 megawatts,” Nkwo said, adding that sometimes, it appears the power they get is not commensurate with the amount we pay.
He regretted that while other communities who have benefitted from solar systems pay as little as N200, Umuode and other communities in Egbeke pay a minimum of N1000.
“We have complained to the site manager who said he has told the company, but nothing has been done, “We bear it because we get constant supply”.
When confronted with the allegations, Evans confirmed that the tariff stopped at N1000, adding that community members have complained about the rate which they described as outrageous.
While denying that he had anything to do with the rate, he said complained to the company management who said they will have to discuss with the NERC and other stakeholders involved before taking any decision on cost reduction.
“They promised that they will look into the complaints with time, “he said, adding that the company also felt it was best to keep the money at N1000 so that people don’t always complain that their power ends quickly”.
While community members complain about the cost of power in Egbeke, they say it is better than any other power source. Ikechi Jim who owns a provision store said that although he spends N6000 every week, he prefers the solar system because it is always available except when the money finishes and you must recharge again.
“If you are using a generator, and It gets spoilt, you have to go and repair and that affects your business, “he said. “Sometimes, those who are connected to the power grid go for weeks and months without supply,”.
Where the problem often lies, an expert’s point of view
While the solar projects are providing sustainable energy in benefitting communities, Chief Operating Officer at Manamuz Electric limited, a Nigerian Electrical and Renewable energy company, Chigozie Enemoh, said that some mini-grid projects do not last beyond 1 year after commissioning because companies often fail to do a load and energy analysis of communities and other areas before they deploy solar systems.
He explained that the company must try to understand the load pattern and do an extensive load analysis as well as a futuristic master plan to know what is expected in terms of load demand in the next two or more years.
“The problem we always have is that sometimes when you deploy, you find out that the energy demands outweigh the system that was deployed, “he said. “Once people see light, they tend to buy more appliances, which increases the energy demand and creates problems for the system”.
Additionally, he said that there is usually the challenge of lack of maintenance of solar panels which have the tendency of attracting dust- because they are open-air which reduces their efficiency and output over time.
He explained that some mini-grid developers are only concerned about deploying and commissioning of solar power projects in benefitting communities without embarking on operation and maintenance which is very key to the sustenance of any project.
“After deploying and commissioning, the next stage is the O and M which should last for as long as the project lasts, “he said. “Depending on the capacity of the project, you could schedule maintenance every four or six months”.
He said that mini-grid contracts have operation and maintenance costs and that is where companies are expected to train community members who will maintain the project while they are away and always report back when issues they cannot handle arise.
Story was originally published by the ICIR.