By Ebele Orakpo
The place of power in any economy cannot be overemphasised.Recently, the Minister of Power, Dr. Lanre Babalola while speaking at the rollout workshop of the National Power Training Institute of Nigeria (NAPTIN), in Abuja said that for the country to attain its vision of becoming one of the best economies in the world by the year 2020, it would require about 25,000 megawatts of electricity.
To most Nigerians, this is a pipe dream as the Federal Government is still struggling to attain a mere 6,000 megawatts by end of this year.
The Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, PSC Industries Ltd. Dr. Patrick Owelle, however, begged to differ, saying it is absolutely possible to attain 6,000 megawatts by end of this year if solar energy option is explored. He spoke to Saturday Vanguard Business.
Sir, what is the awareness level of solar energy in Nigeria?
I would tell you that the awareness has improved significantly. I donâ€™t have any statistics to say the depth but obviously, that is our challenge to penetrate the market. I would think that we have done a good job so far but a lot has to be done. If I was forced to hazard a guess, I would say probably 5% of the population understand this very, very important innovation that would help us in sustainability and to provide electricity for our masses.
Our industries are down due to lack of power, can solar energy come to the rescue here? In other words, can it power heavy industrial and hospital equipment?
Absolutely! A lot of people donâ€™t understand that solar electricity is just the same thing as the traditional electricity you get from the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN. There is no difference.
Itâ€™s 220-230 volts, 50 hertz frequency electricity, same thing, no difference. The only thing is that you have to be prepared to pay upfront for the system. But the benefit is that you donâ€™t have to pay a penny after you install the system for the rest of your life virtually. So itâ€™s a lot cheaper, but you have to size the system properly so you could power whatever you want to power.
What about space, doesnâ€™t it take up too much space?
No. We have some nano solar panels that we have right here that has reduced the size significantly from what it used to be. I would liken it to when the mobile phones came out, we had those big mobile phones that you carry with transponders but today, you have mobile phones in your pocket. The same thing, we are reducing the size of solar panels with higher efficiency so the size constraint is no longer a real issue for now.
Have you done anything to help bring down the price so that it could be affordable?
As technology improves and demand goes up, price comes down so the price will keep coming down. For now, I think the price is competitive because if you look at solar in a vacuum, yes, it seems like the price is high but itâ€™s really not, because if you compare your solar panel to your diesel generator, with the generator, you are going to keep buying diesel, maintaining the equipment and after five years, you are going to replace it.
With solar, you buy the system and that is the end of it. So we have arrangements where we have actually talked to banks that can issue loans to people to buy systems and they pay just like they are paying PHCN every month. But the pay out period could be one year, two or three years and you are done for the rest of your life. So I would submit to you that solar, as it is today, is far cheaper than any other alternative source of electricity.
Could you estimate how much it will cost to power a two-bedroom apartment with the basic necessities like refrigerator, television, radio, airconditioner, fan?
It depends on what they want to power. The airconditioner could be a one horse power airconditioner or a two horse power airconditioner that uses 3Kw hour of electricity as opposed to 1Kw so the more energy efficient your appliances are, the better it is for you as a solar customer. What we do now is that we are beginning to also educate people on energy efficiency and the importance of using energy efficient light bulbs.
For example, Mr. A and Mr. B could have identical one-bedroom apartment but Mr Aâ€™s apartment is not energy efficient so he is using 20Kw hours of electricity but there are 2,000Kw hours a day and Mr. B is using only 1% of what he is using but has exactly the same appliances and the same type of luminosity in terms of the brightness of the bulbs and everything else so what we try to do is to say â€˜look, buy the system then you make sure that you use energy efficient light bulbs, they are very cheap and very inexpensive to run.
You could buy an 11-watt energy efficient light bulb and use it as opposed to somebody using a 100-watt incandescent light bulb so you are using just 10% of the electricity but you get the same luminosity. That is the key
Could you put a figure to it?
Bearing in mind what Iâ€™ve just said, I think that it depends on the customer.
We have systems as cheap as N75,000 so I can say between N75,000 and N1m for a system. It could be anywhere in between, it just depends on what you want.
You said there are no down sides but there has been reports of some of the solar street lights not being bright enough and that was attributed to rains, so can rain affect the system?
Well, I would say yes because we depend on photons, the radiation from the sun to give us electricity and in times when the weather is pretty bad, you will notice some reduction in the radiation from the sun. But again, remember, your energy is stored so it doesnâ€™t make any difference on the output on the way the system works because it is running off the reserve electricity you have and once the bad weather goes away, your system is back recharging the way it was recharging before so I havenâ€™t seen any real impact from bad weather.
Remember also we are doing a lot of this installations in the UK, US and Canada where there is tremendous snow and we donâ€™t have those kinds of impacts. We are in heaven here in Nigeria because we have 10 to 12 hours of sunlight everyday.
Can you talk a bit about solar farms?
A solar farm is virtually a congregation of solar panels and inverters to change the direct current that we generate from the solar panels to alternating current and we can feed that alternating current into the grid directly and get paid back from the utility company and the utility bills the consumers or we can provide this electricity directly to the customers and that is how the independent power projects actually work.