By Okafor Akachukwu | 12/05/2016
The debate for the future of Nigeria’s burgeoning energy sector may have just began. Few weeks back, the nation woke up to media reports that Nigeria’s power generation dropped to 0 megawatts (MW) for 3 hours when they were in bed. This wasn’t good news at least to the officials at the Power Ministry, who will have to remind Nigerians that the usual outages were a result of vandalised gas pipelines, union strikes and probably low volume of water at the dams. Some reports and opinion argued that the outage normally occurred, but this particular incident may have gotten wide media attention because of the current petroleum products scarcity in the country. These incidences are enough to spark public debates on Nigeria’s energy future. How long can we continue in darkness; what are the real solutions to the crisis; what better ways can we source our power needs in environmentally safe and sustainable ways? These discussions, especially the last, is likely not to come from the public, maybe not just yet. We aren’t used to engaging in debates, conversations that shape public policy. We usually leave debates to the policy makers and interest groups who normally have only their interests to protect. What then happens to the general public interest?
The history of energy systems show that people do not really care where the energy they consume is sourced, they are often reluctant to do so. Energy debates have only evolved to become topics of public policy concern, especially when there has been an environmental catastrophe, as witnessed mostly in the late 70s and 80s. The US Three Mile and Chernobyl disasters are examples, including the recent Fukushima Daiichi disaster. These incidents sparked a new wave of movement and resistance against nuclear energy, which had a huge impact in directing the energy systems that exist today. Mostly recently, adverse environmental impacts of fossil fuel exploration, and consumption, and climate change impacts birthed new movements against continued fossil fuel use especially coal – the highest contributor of global carbon emissions. These changes have resulted in the development of streams of renewable energy (RE) technologies and solutions with diverse areas of applications. Something that was unthinkable two decades ago. Deployment of RE technologies is experiencing a rapid increase, eliciting debates of how this process needs to evolve and governed, and in which direction. On whose terms are the complex global, regional, national and local energy system changes going to happen? Who will direct this process and at what cost?
In 2012, the Government of Nigeria issued coal mining licenses in line with its ambition to use coal fuel to meet 30% of Nigeria’s electricity demands. Armed with these licenses, mining commenced with consequent environmental and health impacts on the communities that host mining sites. One of such communities is Okobo, a peasant farming community in Kogi State, Nigeria, that is host to coal mining sites that will power a proposed 1200 MW coal power plant located in another community called Itobe – also in Kogi State. These adverse environmental and biodiversity impacts have caught the attention and response of Global Rights, a human rights and justice focused organisation. Global Rights have started ask some difficult questions that stakeholders usually ignore or are reluctant to ask, or even work to find answers to. It organized a workshop to launch and debate on “Power at What Cost?” – A report that highlights the impact of coal mining and coal power generation on Okobo and Itube communities of Kogi state.” The report exposed the air, water, soil and other forms of environmental pollution that the community is suffering as a result of the coal mining.
The debate amongst the workshop participants exposed future severe dangers and challenges that Nigeria’s environment and energy systems is bound to face, if urgent appraisal of our energy strategy and enforcement of certain environmental laws are not undertaken. Unfortunately, the agencies and departments of government that are charged with these responsibilities lack the capacity and capabilities to act. For instance, a representative of the Ministry of Solid Minerals Development stated that the ministry lacks the resources to undertake regular inspection of most of the mines in the country. On the other hand, representatives of the Climate Change department, Ministry of Environment disclosed that it has no measure or framework of ensuring the that operations of coal mines in the country comply with strict environmental regulations that will ensure that: the environmental impacts are minimal, Nigeria meets its ambitious Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). Also, the Ministries of Power, Environment, Solid Minerals Development, Agriculture are yet to develop a plan on how Nigeria can implement its INDC of 476 million tonnes per year of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions reductions in 2030 through different measures that do not include coal, generate 13,000 MW of electricity from off-grid solar PV. Incidentally, the activation of power from coal is unlikely to help the situation. Other questions that came up during the workshop were as follows: What are the true costs (financial, environmental, socioeconomic, health impacts) of power from fossil fuel – coal, gas and renewable energy such as solar, wind, biomass? Who should bear these costs? What should be the contribution of various energy sources to the energy mix? How can the system meet the very complex and dynamic demands while keeping issues of human rights, equity and social justice obligations towards the poorest and marginalized groups on the front burner?
The conversation that will deliver efficient, reliable energy systems, promote energy access across all sections of the population and promote sustainable development need to grow bigger than the conversation at the workshop. The system needs to be open to participation by all actors and stakeholders, who must take ownership of the system and demand that the interests of all sections of the society be represented in Nigeria’s future energy system.