What Nigeria Can Teach the U.S. About a Green New Deal
Editor’s note: This post is part of the NextBillion Series “New Frontiers in Renewable Energy” that explores the dynamic changes reshaping the sector. Learn more about NextBillion’s other 2019 series here.
Grand ideas make for grand plans. Grandest of them all for the U.S., at least by size, is the proposed Green New Deal, a congressional resolution intended to tame climate change, guarantee new high-paying jobs, and resolve the blights of economic inequality and racial injustice. No small aims there.
To meet these goals – in particular, the goal of staving off climate change – the Green New Deal proposes that the U.S. rapidly migrate to drawing all of its electricity from renewable and carbon-free power. Such a fundamental and costly overhaul of power infrastructure has provoked passion and ire in equal measure, threatening to derail the Green New Deal. But what if the solution is not to think big, but to think small? Instead of a vast new energy grid, the right answer might be found in creating efficient, resilient and job-creating decentralized grids. To see that in practice, you have to cross the Atlantic Ocean – to Africa.
Nigeria’s Approach to Expanding Energy Access
Nigeria, like the U.S., is a large nation with large dreams. Two hundred million people call Nigeria home and, with a median age of roughly 18, that number is predicted to grow to 400 million by 2050 – and a staggering 1 billion by 2100. Yet despite having the largest GDP in Africa, almost half of the population lacks access to electricity. The erratic power supply results in an estimated $25 billion in annual losses. Given the electricity deficit, Nigerians are forced to generate their own electricity. The most popular options are noisy, dirty, unreliable and costly petrol and diesel generators, which cost $14 billion on a yearly basis. With a growing population overwhelming the meager energy supply, Nigeria has had to look for creative solutions.
Nigerians are beginning to receive electricity from decentralized renewable-energy mini-grids. Mini-grids are independent electricity networks that function separately from a national grid. Instead of one large plant providing power for an entire region, a number of small-capacity plants provide energy for their local communities and economic clusters.
With costs rapidly plummeting, solar has become a particularly attractive energy source for mini-grids in Nigeria. For a consumer, there is little adaptation of behavior required – unlike a solar panel-and-generator kit, a solar mini-grid is akin to a micro-utility, in that customers pay for the electricity that they consume via pre-paid meters. Although Nigeria’s off-grid solar market is not as developed as East Africa’s, it is poised for strong growth in the coming years. The Nigerian government received $350 million in World Bank funding to provide electricity to 75-90% of the population by 2020 and 2030 respectively.
The Key Advantages of Mini-Grids
However, while habit might encourage use by a consumer, in order for policy makers, engineers and investors to drive introduction of mini-grids, their clear-cut merit and incentives need to be revealed. Three such striking features stand out: their efficiency of cost and power, their resilience to external shocks, and their job-creating ability.
Mini-grids are designed to meet local energy needs, nestled within the communities they serve. This means that the generation, distribution and consumption of electricity is performed side-by-side – a boon to energy conservation and efficiency. This reduces the global average of roughly 10-15% energy loss caused by sending power down lengthy high voltage transmission lines. In Nigeria those figures are even higher. For power generators to be producing electricity that is lost and never used is plainly wasteful.
By being decentralized, mini-grids also keep generating power even if there is a power outage, avoiding power cuts from the central grid. Indeed, sweeping power cuts are among the first consequences of severe weather and natural disasters, which can easily destroy transmission lines. For instance, during Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Harvey, transmission lines were ripped apart: They were only repaired weeks after the storms ceased, leaving millions without power in the U.S. With the number of severe storms predicted to rise in a warming world, mini-grids offer a resilient defense to maintaining power in adverse weather.
Clean Energy = New Jobs
Mini-grids also address other challenges. For example, in Nigeria, Solad and Rensource, private decentralized energy companies, have sought to plug the electricity gap with their subscription-based solar mini-grids. Among Solad and Rensource’s leading projects is the powering of Sabon Gari market in Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city. Sabon Gari is one of several renewable energy projects that fall under the aegis of the Nigerian government’s Rural Electrification Agency (REA), which is powering economic clusters throughout the country. In 2006, after passing the Energy Act, the Nigerian government created the REA to accelerate the pace of rural electrification. The agency is committed to providing power for rural communities with a focus on off-grid solar.
Sabon Gari is a 12,000-store market, audibly dominated by the deafening roar of thousands of generators working to provide power for the entrepreneurs and shoppers who do business there. The market has long depended on petrol and diesel generators for power. Shop-by-shop, though, those generators are being replaced by quiet, clean, efficient and affordable solar power, as this short film so vividly shows.
The construction of the mini-grid in Sabon Gari has provided more than just reliable and renewable power. It has also provided jobs in the installation and maintenance of the solar systems, whose technologies are now sufficiently mature that they are relatively simple to construct, install and maintain. This job-creating element of solar is an eminently necessary benefit in youth-dominated Nigeria. But it could also extend to the United States – particularly the traditional manufacturing and mining regions of the Rustbelt – providing a vital stimulus to economically gutted communities, and allowing them to generate and keep money and skills locally. Building, supplying and using a new source of clean power accomplishes both of these goals.
Flipping the Script on the Green New Deal
Climate change has been framed as an ethical issue for quite some time. Sadly, the results have been mixed – as evidenced by the reception received by the Green New Deal. Imagine, however, if the cause and consequence of the Green New Deal were inverted. Imagine if, instead of basing it on preventing climate change with the hope of creating jobs, efficiency and resiliency, it was premised on increasing jobs, efficiency and resiliency – with the hope of preventing climate change.
Practicable solutions have to be offered. The REA has recognized mini-grid energy as one promising approach, and recently launched the Nigerian Electrification Project in collaboration with the World Bank: The project aims to provide a reliable off-grid power supply for 250,000 small businesses and 1 million households. As Nigeria is showing, mini-grids are part of the solution to the large problems facing global access energy today.
Damilola Ogunbiyi is the UN special representative for sustainable energy and CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforAll). She served previously as the Managing Director of Nigeria’s Rural Electrification Agency (REA).
Photo: Green New Deal proponent New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo via Flickr.