A Study of Energy and Urbanization in a West African Country
Posted on 25/02/2015
A. Sustainable Energy and Technology
For those who know me and have the misfortune of hearing me speak on my beloved country, Nigeria, they’ll know exactly how this article will go. You can probably already hear the groans and “oh-boys” among my circle of friends and family as I mount my soapbox. I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, neither am I a public speaker or grandiose orator. I’m just a concerned daughter, born in Port Harcourt and half-raised in Lagos, Nigeria before making U.S.A my home.
For most of my childhood in Nigeria, I remember the intermittent, flickering light and the long stretches of dark quiet in my neighborhood. Later on, the humming incessant noise of generators filled the silence and for a while, there was a respite from the uncomfortable darkness. I’ve never been a fan of darkness, a most uncomfortable visitor whenever it comes… unannounced and staying for longer than its welcome. As a child, it didn’t matter much since we were outside all the time, playing and making up stories. Our imagination occupied most of our childhood, although I do recall constantly counting the days turn into weeks, electricity becoming an unfaithful friend.
Both my parents had lived there for a time, in their university days, before returning home to raise five children. My childhood was a happy one, and I didn’t know any better about the stark differences between my homeland and the land of the free. Whenever electricity decided to come back for a brief visit, we’d watch cable and see the wonders of America. They had electricity every day, they lived comfortably! It seemed like a dream.
When we moved abroad, I was floored by the differences between our one-story flat in Ijegun and our duplex home in Middlesex, UK. First, the present companionship of stable electricity. It never went out. We could sleep comfortably, knowing the light would be there to greet us when we woke. No more droning sounds of a generator! America was even better! I didn’t realize why there was such a sharp difference between my homeland and this one I now called home, didn’t care much about it until I went back again in 2009.
The problem with intermittent electricity turns out to be a vicious monopoly of electricity by an evasive but imminent presence called the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA). Anyone who has spent up to a week or two in Nigeria is familiar with the fond but not funny name “NEPA.” When there is a power outage, either at home or across the world, we familiarly refer to the phenomenon as “NEPA.” It’s funny when you’re living in the United States, knowing your power will be restored eventually and readily. In Nigeria, it’s not a joke. It’s almost like a curse word when used.
NEPA is the power holding authority in Nigeria, as they boast on their website. They govern the use and distribution of available electricity across the states in Nigeria. I won’t go into detail about what they do and how they do it. Some would argue that their work is subpar and unfair. If interested, I’ll put up a long thesis I wrote about NEPA. For now, I’m just highlighting the issues faced in Nigeria from an outsider’s point of view.
The reason why America has fewer problems with efficiently distributing power is because there is no true monopoly of power. In Houston, there are more than a handful of power companies competing with each other to provide electricity at lower rates per wattage to customers nationally. If there is so much of a delay or glitch providing electricity, the customer has every right to seek the service of another power company. Power companies can’t afford to lose their customer base and therefore are more efficient in their services.
Imagine if NEPA was no more. Or rather, there was privatization of power with many other companies stepping to the plate to provide electricity. Some would argue that this is just part of the problem. So what’s the other half? The other piece would be availability and sustainability of power. Without available power, there’s nothing to provide or rather, not enough to share and distribute. There are some many faces to this obscure but existing argument.
I’ve skimmed through several forums and talking boards, people seeking solutions and offering suggestions for the age-old problem Nigeria faces with their power problems. Some have suggested solar and wind power, all very good and innovative ideas. The thing that bothers me with these forums is that everyone wants to counterattack with negative, pessimistic criticism without offering a better solution.
For instance, one person mentioned installing solar panels since Nigeria has a considerable reservoir of sunlight compared to the frequently-gray London. The popular response was “that’s lame. Nigeria doesn’t have THAT much sunshine to utilize the energy efficiently.” It’s like a childish debate; countering someone else’s opinions and suggestions without offering a worthy statement of your own.
The more educated response would be to list facts for why Nigeria’s solar reservoir is depleting over the years and that the available storage needed to house the energy that can be captured isn’t adequate. Then someone else with more knowledge and expertise can tackle that with a solution; a better, more adequate means to store solar or wind energy.
Today, people choose to puff out their chests and show off their stacks of master and PhD degrees in geology and petroleum engineering, while Nigeria remains a third-world country. Does it make sense that we boast of our educated and acclaimed politicians, engineers and doctors when we can’t come up with a better country? Why is it that after so many years of so-called progress, with so many professionals earning their degrees overseas, that the country seems to be depleting in resources and technical expertise.
There’s compromise in every form. Professionals are doing under-the-table politics, engineers are doing subpar work and not following their engineer’s creed, doctors are working under subpar conditions because of lacking funds and resources. Yet there’s an annual increase in imports of million-dollar vehicles and goods. Ironically, engineers and the wealthy drive their escalades on unfinished roads, sit in traffic for HOURS, to get to “work” and stay there for a few hours before making the long drive home.
I choose not to mention the politics in Nigeria because I’m not an expert. Neither am I an expert in technology or science, but it’s what I immerse myself in on a daily basis. If these engineers, trained and bred in the United States, would actually apply what they’ve learned in their communities, wouldn’t there be a visible change? Even if it doesn’t pay, the community benefits from the work done.
There is potential for change in Nigeria if people are willing. Constant and sustainable electricity is possible, if funds are not siphoned into personal pocketbooks but to the cause that affects the country as a whole. Does it make sense that Nigeria who has imports comparable to Dubai, is a stark difference in comparison?
Figure 1: Google Earth’s view in lights
The map above shows how dark the continent of Africa compares with the rest of the world. One can clearly note that in comparison with the United States, Europe and the modernized parts of Asia, Africa and more specifically, Nigeria, seems rather “dark and unconnected.” How unsettling this observation is considering how “rich” Nigeria is in its natural resources. According to Federal Republic of Nigeria’s official website, Nigeria is “richly endowed” with copious amounts of natural minerals such as gypsum, barites and marble (Table 1).
Table 1: Available natural resources in select states in Nigeria
Permit me a brief example about the non-utilization of our nation’s natural resources. When renovating our kitchen earlier this year, the contractor who recently traveled to Nigeria for a job mentioned copious amounts of marble in a landfill. He lamented that “they” had no idea what to do with marble and were wasting the valuable resource instead of utilizing or at least exporting it.
This is just one example of what happens with our available resources. The question that bothers me most is if there is not enough knowledge on how to utilize what we have and it goes unnoticed and/or wasted? If other countries were given these rich reservoirs, would things be different?
Concerning the wind and solar energy not being sufficient, it’s all about storing and distributing the energy that is available. Solar or wind energy is renewable. It can be stored and spent daily, with different solutions to utilize stored energy through innovative technology. For example, implementing modular energy storage systems in stationary applications can help with the power-grid issues in Nigeria. This system is essentially a pack or stack of batteries.
So imagine with me that there is a farm of windmills installed in Kaduna and a modular energy storage system was integrated. From the morning till night, these windmills generate power that can be utilized readily, the excess power being stored for use. Activity decreases from day to night, indicating that there is an excess of power generated and can be stored in the modular energy system. The question is if this could solve the never-ending problem. Some would argue, but let me hear your suggestions instead of nonsensical insistence against a proposed progress.
If all the inventors and world changers in history listened to naysayers, we’d still be living in the Stone Age period. Nothing necessarily wrong with living the Stone Age, but compared to what liberties and luxuries we have now, I for one I’m glad they didn’t listen and pressed on. Aren’t you?
B. Urban Growth and Dichotomy
Lagos was where I spent the early years of my childhood. I remember it vividly as carefree. We lived in an apartment complex shared by four families. The four-duplex community was fenced by a rusty-colored fence with a rectangular peephole in front and a large, cemented courtyard to park cars or play after school. Life, I admit, was simpler then. Not much to do after school and homework except congregate in the courtyard and play ten-ten for hours or make mud-pies if the ground was damp. Or, my favorite pastime especially when “NEPA took light”, was listening to old folk stories told by parents or older kids in the neighborhood.
Ten years after I first left Nigeria for London, I returned home for a cousin’s wedding and I was completely disconcerted by how little things had changed. Yes, the roads were “smoother” especially in Victoria Island where my cousins lived, and there were skyscrapers and a mall (!), I couldn’t help but notice the odd sight of shiny mansions surrounded by decrepit buildings stacked on each other.
Even as I moved to the balcony on the fourth floor of my relative’s impressive home and looked over the red roofs of other homes, I could see those dilapidated buildings a mile away. Old buildings from my childhood still stood, the mansions sticking up obnoxiously. The incessant humming of generators brought me back to those years I played ten-ten with my cousins until the night pushed us inside.
I recently read an article that stated Nigeria is “a country… whose huge size is matched by its population’s taste for life lived large: enormous cars, flashy outfits.” The author didn’t mention the architectural wonders called estate homes being built all over Lagos, but the point is clear. Most of the rich Lagosians attempt to beautify their city and their lifestyles with four-story sprawling estates, fancy cars and exclusive properties on the edge of the state. The government is proud of new developments to make Lagos “Africa’s Big Apple” by building commercial waterfront properties (Figure 2) that boast of the bluest water and the tallest, most impressive buildings Africa has ever seen.
Figure 2: The conceptual “Eko Atlantic”, a glitzy city in Lagos
Rich Lagosians are promised their own waterfront, the fanciest yachts and the grandest opportunity to watch the sunrise and sunset from their twenty-first floor penthouse. It’s an ambitious but well-meaning intent to want to make Lagos a beautiful state that Nigerians can be proud of, but it’s ignoring the big white elephant in the room. Or rather, the herd of elephants stomping loud and harrumphing through their long trunks (Figure 3).
Figure 3: A day in Lagos traffic
The conceptual Eko Atlantic and other urban models like it are only attempts to fix Lagos’ big problems. In fact, the state website even affirms that its “population is growing ten times faster than New York and Los Angeles with grave implications for urban sustainability,” indicated by the unbearable and frustrating traffic issues. An average Lagosian sits in traffic for four hours before getting to his destination. The rich and highly influential have the option of helicopter pickups if pressed for time.
Imagine sitting in traffic every day, hearing those obnoxious helicopter engines hovering. Or getting up at an ungodly hour just to get to work “on time.” What is the definition of “on-time” in Lagos, if everyone has the same bright idea to leave early for work and still face the same problem?
The current infrastructure is inconsistent, with poorly-built roads and bridges breaking down constantly and construction seems never-ending.
C. Final Words
“I commend state governments that have built power plants and will encourage more states to build more and increase the national generation capacity. However, the problem with power supply in Nigeria is not just about power generation. Much BIGGER problems are transmission, INEFFICIENCY, very bad distribution networks, corruption, weak systems, lack of financial viability, etc.” – Unknown