Scientific, technological and innovation capabilities required for an efficient energy system

By Okafor Akachukwu 14/12/2016

In my November 15 article, titled “Derisking Nigeria’s electricity market for increased energy access”, I alluded to the Nigeria Bulk Electricity Trading (NBET) Company boss’s position that Nigeria cannot run nuclear and wind technologies for electricity purposes. I stated asides the huge financial cost of deploying these technologies, decommissioning and waste management, our inability to run wind and nuclear can only be understood “from a science, technology, and innovation capabilities and management perspective” which the scope of the article did not allow me go into. Today, I will provide more insight on this statement. This is not to say that wind and nuclear technologies have become high tech ventures in themselves as sending man to space. Actually it is much easier to send a man to space and back than to deploy wind and nuclear technologies and keep it running optimally for more than 40 years. The reason is that these technologies are hosted, embedded and operate within a very complex and complicated environment and sociotechnical – energy system that requires much more than the technological knowhow to be successful. And if an element or component of the system is missing, system failure is inevitable. Unlike decades ago, the increasing waves of socioeconomic, financial, environmental, political, technological and security challenges, particularly security vulnerabilities and instabilities, including cyber attacks – have made managing a nuclear facility more complex and complicated. The myriad of challenges seem to dwarf the challenges of scientific, technological and innovative capabilities, and are the first and principle factor for scientific and technological development and advancement.

Science, technology and innovation policy for socio-economic, scientific, and technological development and advancement is dynamic and changing from what we used to know. The linear model of innovation – Research and Development (R&D) and Regulation – was the dominant model in the 1960s-1980s. This model necessitated the United Nations Advisory Committee on the Application of Science and Technology to Development (ACAST) to develop a World Plan for the Application of Science and Technology for Development in 1970 for the Second United Nations Development Decade (1970-1979) – which produced the document that is widely known as the “Sussex Manifesto”. The essence was to produce a strategy that would help developing countries (Global South) build its own scientific and technological capabilities and move from acquiring technologies from developed North, to adapting technologies to local conditions and mastering them. This is widely referred to as “technology transfer” – and is still a huge controversial topic of debate in the climate change negotiations. An important part of the plan was that scientific and technological/technical services sector should receive several times more funds than what is invested in research. Today’s dominant model is the National Systems of Innovation (NSI) from the 1990s, which has come to stay, while the other- “Transformative Change” is an emerging model that researchers at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex suggest. Many countries especially the Asian Tigers have exploited the provisions of these models to be where they are today. I which to use what happened in China particularly in its energy sector to highlight some practical lessons of how building strong scientific, technological and innovative capabilities can be instrumental to development.

In the 1990s when faced with growing energy demand especially for its manufacturing sector, Chinese government quickly set the right policies, incentives and R&D programmes called the 863 and 973 programmes. The objective, to gain mastery and localize supercritical (SC) and ultra-supercritical (USC) coal-fired power plants technologies, was clearly stated in the policies. With full government support – funding and right environment, Chinese firms acquired its first supercritical units in 1992 from leading international firms such as ABB and General Electric for boilers and steam turbines respectively. There were also research collaborations with Chinese regional design and research institutions headed by Chinese Thermal Power Research Institute (TPRI) in Xian and international firms such as Siemens, Hitachi and Alstom for the design of new coal plants. The outcome of these was that in 2004 China’s first domestically manufactured a supercritical unit with a total capacity of 600MW, which started service in Henan Province and between 2004 and 2007 China had installed 123.6GW of super-critical units. Ultra-supercritical technology (USC) also received significant attention. In 2000, China collaborated with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the Harbin Boiler Company and Siemens to acquire, adapt and improve USC technology. In 2006 China installed its first domestically manufactured USC unit in Yuhuan. In 2010, more than 100 USC units were on order from Chinese power companies. This was also replicated for integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technologies. Starting with acquiring licenses from leading international firms such as Shell, TPRI learned the gasification technology and advanced it. Recently, due to higher efficiency of Chinese IGCC it beat competing Shell and General Electric IGCC technologies to win the bid for Good Spring IGCC in the US owned by EmberClear. Similar successes have been recorded for Solar PV, wind and nuclear technologies.

These successes wouldn’t have happened without strong scientific, technological and innovation capabilities built upon strategic research and development and regulation policies and mechanism and National Systems of Innovation that has specific national development targets to achieve. NSI requires having the right R&D policy, intellectual property rights (IPR) law that protects and encourages innovation, education policy that aligns with development plan, foresight, right system regulation, technological spaces/platforms for interaction on various levels, use of demand stimuli – procurement to push for supply improvements and innovation, increasing capacity to absorb and use knowledge, building regional and sectoral systems of innovation, stimulating entrepreneurship and incubators. Along with these, China made significant investments of over USD $50 Billion, and the same applies to technological advanced countries such as Germany, Demark, US, United Kingdom, Japan, Netherlands who have made significant gains in the development of new low carbon energy technologies. These elements are needed for a scientific, technological and innovation side of a complete delivery chain in our interest and to successfully acquire and operate wind and nuclear technologies. Lessons abound for Nigeria and other developing countries. Envisioning a technologically advanced green (low carbon) economy without robust R&D and without an NSI base built on an educational policy that improves and advances science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outputs, and without improving institutional and organizational capabilities to govern the system will only be an illusion. Nigeria can start today to build these capabilities to enable it effectively and efficiently harness its huge gas, biomass, solar, hydro and possibly wind and nuclear potentials for its national energy security.

Okafor Akachukwu is a Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex trained Energy Policy, Innovation and Sustainability Expert. Twitter: @akachukwu Email: akachukwu_okafor@yahoo.com

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