Climate Change And a Case For Renewable Energy Options

(By Oluwafunmilore Adebola)

Conscientious literate Nigerians need to acquaint themselves with at least the basic issues involved in climate change—what it means, why it is important and the current steps being taken to combat it. Yet, as I said at the beginning of this essay, ‘climate change’ is now beyond a phrase even for Nigerians.  At every front tackling climate change is not just imperative, not doing so could prove fatal.   When comparing the environmental impact of forms of energy sources including coal, nuclear and Renewables (especially Solar and Wind), it is noted that wind energy has the lowest environmental and health costs, per unit of energy delivered, significantly less than that of nuclear energy.

I WILL start by recalling two recent incidents. Sometime towards the end of last year I came to an interesting understanding of the phrase ‘Climate Change’. Before this time, if asked to explain what the expression meant, I would have reeled off an explanation that showed my knowledge of the technical aspects—greenhouse gases, depletion of the ozone layer and so on. But when I saw that it was still raining well after the rainy season was supposed to have ended, I realised that ‘Climate Change’ simply means that the climate has changed. The expression ceased to be one that belonged in my textbooks or in the news—it became an action phrase; it became a living reality.

   Secondly, from November 18 – 22, I was at the African Technology Policy Studies (ATPS) Network’s Annual Conference and Workshop held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. One of the key note speakers was Prof. Lynn K. Mytelka, who spoke on “Energy Transitions, Innovation and Development: Global Imperatives and African Realities”. In giving concluding remarks to the conference, she said something that struck me: “Don’t reverse to old technologies like coal or discredited technologies like Nuclear”. These two incidents form the premise for the points I intend to raise in this piece.

  It is clear to everyone who lives in this country that Nigeria currently has an energy challenge (that’s putting it mildly).  Our pursuit of a solution to this challenge should, however, be done right and with an understanding. In considering the Nigerian energy issue, some have advised that Nigeria ventures into Nuclear Energy. I believe, however, that this would be the most wrong of approaches. I am in this article making a case for the choice of renewable energy sources for Nigeria instead of Nuclear energy or any other form of energy. I will mostly concentrate on Nuclear energy.  I want to make it clear: I am not presenting an argument on which energy source is better on a global scale—Nuclear or Renewables. These arguments have been around for a long time and will probably continue for a while. I am saying that renewable energy is what Nigeria should invest in NOW. Here are the reasons:

   Let’s start from the environment. This is the number one reason why there has been widespread clamouring for stricter restrictions on carbon emissions and a need to pursue green energy. It is why Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, promised to make dealing with climate change the main concern of his five-year term stating that “action was needed to create a carbon market, eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies and “green” the world’s 100 megacities, which are responsible for 60 to 70 per cent of global emissions” (Source: The Guardian UK). It is the reason why Renewables have become very attractive and should be invested in.

   Conscientious literate Nigerians need to acquaint themselves with at least the basic issues involved in climate change—what it means, why it is important and the current steps being taken to combat it. Yet, as I said at the beginning of this essay, ‘climate change’ is now beyond a phrase even for Nigerians.  At every front tackling climate change is not just imperative, not doing so could prove fatal.   When comparing the environmental impact of forms of energy sources including coal, nuclear and Renewables (especially Solar and Wind), it is noted that wind energy has the lowest environmental and health costs, per unit of energy delivered, significantly less than that of nuclear energy.  Some Renewables such as certain forms of solar energy and biomass have higher environmental impact than nuclear energy but as will be shown later, this does not still make nuclear energy suitable.  Coal of course has, perhaps, the highest environmental and health costs, per unit of energy delivered pegged about 60 times that of wind energy. Put succinctly, therefore, on the general, Renewables have comparable environmental and health costs.

  Another reason why Nigeria should invest in Renewables is the relative newness of the field. Compared to coal or nuclear energy, the cumulative focus and effort directed at green energy is still minimal. What does this mean? Melissa Schilling in her book ‘Strategic Management of Technology’ shows a typology of categories, where the absorption of a technology is concerned, proposed by Everett M. Rogers. Under this typology we have five groups: Innovators (The first individuals to adopt a technology. They form the first 2.5 per cent of the entire number of adopters). Early Adopters: They form the next 13.5 per cent after innovators to adopt a technology. They have the greatest potential for opinion leadership. Early Majority: These form the next 34 per cent and adopt innovations slightly before the average member of a social system. Late Majority: Forming 34 per cent, the late majority approach innovation with a skeptical air and often adopt technologies due to pressure from others and Laggards: They form the last 16 per cent and are highly skeptical of innovations and innovators.

   Nigeria currently has an opportunity to occupy the position of Early Adopters or Early Majority where Renewables are concerned. Currently the field is at a point where its boundaries and framework are well defined. This is one of the major advantages that the Early Adopters and Early Majority enjoy. The innovators have often done the hard work and have taken the major risks. Today where Renewables are concerned, a deluge of information exists on a global knowledge network powered by the internet. Nigeria needs to plug into this network now. We should start working with renewable technologies, researching them, and focusing on localising them. Take nuclear energy, for instance, it is obvious that the technology is drawing to its end. Why would we want to invest in such a technology?

  This is another problem we have as a nation—often we invest in and use technology that is either already fully developed or already expiring. Examples abound: We buy second hand aircraft (sometimes with over 50 years of service on them), trains, vehicles etc. A lecturer of mine once put it comically- “We make an order for the latest model and we are told it would take a number of years to manufacture it. However, by the time the machine is built, it is not the latest model anymore – a new model is out. So when it develops faults, we are told the parts are no longer available and we have to place an order for a new model or contact another developing nation like ourselves for parts (paraphrased).”  For how long do we want this to continue? Even current proponents of nuclear energy (in countries that supposedly developed the technology to its current stage and so already have infrastructures in place) argue that it is a place holder—they agree that it is not the best but argue that it is the suitable choice (FOR NOW) since Renewables are not at their peak. A classic example of this can be seen in the 2010 TED Debate between Mark Jacobson and Stewart Brand on both energy options (The video is available on YouTube).  Therefore, one can reasonably predict that, with the current rate of accelerating technologies, in as little as 20 years, nuclear energy may be done away with. This, of course, brings us to the third reason.

  The renewable energy scene is bound to get better as we move forward. New technologies will enable us to improve the efficiencies of solar cells, wind turbines and other means of accessing energy from renewable sources. Nigeria therefore has an opportunity to position herself right now, ensuring that she grows in these technologies independently or at least collaboratively. This, of course, makes sense. Even if we were to invest in nuclear energy now, putting infrastructures in place and restructuring the sector could take as much as the aforementioned 20 years, by which time the technology would be outdated. Why not spend that same time investing in Renewables and in the estimated 20 years emerge as front liners in the field?

  Next we come to safety. This is the major reason why I believe investing in nuclear energy is not the best of ideas for Nigeria at this time. It is why despite the fact that (as stated in the foregoing) certain forms of solar energy and biomass have higher environmental impact than nuclear energy, Nuclear energy is still a NO-NO. It is a well-known fact that although nuclear energy facilities are often well secured, once in a while an accident happens with often disastrous consequences. From Chernobyl (Ukraine) to Fukishima (Japan), the environmental effects of accidents at nuclear facilities are severe. A single accident like Fukishima or Chernobyl, to borrow an expression from my father, is one accident too many. We just cannot run the risk. Such an accident results in radioactive emissions that are usually harmful to those exposed and renders such a place inhabitable for decades. Over 25 years after Chernobyl occurred the place is still inhabitable. Consider the Fukishima accident that occurred in 2011, can Nigeria boast of having such an effective response time and network as Japan? This does not even include our current deplorable maintenance culture or the current scourge of terrorists and militants who can easily pick a nuclear facility as a target with horrible consequences for those in its vicinity. Furthermore, following Fukishima, certain countries have re-evaluated their use of Nuclear energy.

Consider the following data sourced from the IEEE Spectrum Website. Germany which currently has nuclear energy supplying 28 per cent of its power, plans to close down its reactors by 2022; Switzerland which currently has nuclear energy supplying 38 per cent of its power has announced that by 2034 it would close down its reactors and Belgium aims to be totally rid of nuclear energy by 2025 even though more than half of its current power supply comes from nuclear.    Replacements for nuclear energy are already being sought in these countries and the obvious solution is Renewables. Belgium, for example, is reported to have plans to construct an artificial island to be used for storing excess power generated from wind as it is scaling up its wind power capacity which it expects to quadruple by 2020. Note that each of these countries’ target years are either within, or very close to, the 20 years of development I estimated above.

   So what is the way forward for Nigeria? I have certain suggestions.  First is research. It would be good for us to identify which of the renewable energy sources with which each state is well endowed. Renewable energy centres can then be set up in each state to harness its unique renewable energy resource. This must be done in connection with tertiary institutions, especially universities, in each state. University researchers in each state should be tasked and funded to come up with the best possible localised methods and technologies for harnessing the state’s power resource. If well supported and motivated, I believe that our universities will come up with indigenous technologies for maximizing power output. When duly implemented, power generated will then go first to supplying the parent states’ power needs and then excess will be used to bolster other states’ supply. Such a decentralised supply system being overseen by a central body can be very effective.

 There is also a need for Nigerians to embrace the Renewables industry. We need manufacturers, enthusiasts and advocates. There is already a developing industry but there is a need to intensify our efforts.  More home owners should begin to have solar panels installed instead of the traditional diesel or petrol generator.

  Moreover, there is a need to create awareness and as a people clamour for the implementation of currently existing policies that favour a Renewables industry. The time to do that is now so that we can reap the harvest in the long-term. More people need to begin to talk about this, and also consider the pros and cons for the sake of the nation. Nigeria has boundless growth opportunity and Renewables offer us another reason to muster our collective energies to move the nation forward.

• Adebola has a degree from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

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