The managing director of the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI) Solar Energy Limited (NSEL), Dr. Jafaru Mahmud, in this interview with select journalists, speaks on the viability of the solar power sector and what the nation’s industries stand to gain from it in the long run. NKECHI ISAAC was there for Science Nigeria.
Considering the background of the NASENI and its establishment, would you say it is meeting up with the expectations of its founders?
NASENI Solar Energy Limited (NSEL) is a product of the research and development [department], in response to the cry about the insufficiency of energy and how no one was doing anything about it. It is NASENI’s contribution to improving or boosting the energy required for both technological, socio-political and economic development.
In 2010, NASENI set up this place as Karshi Solar Manufacturing Company. That was what it was called then, as an arm of NASENI. There were some arrangements before 2010 but significant strides were made in 2012 by the former DG of NASENI, late Prof. O. Adewoye, who engineered the production of the first solar panel in 2011. The current EVC, Prof. Mohammed Haruna, worked very closely with Adewoye and shared his dream that NASENI should contribute to the energy mix through the production of alternative power supply. That was the small hydro-power (SHP). Also, there was solar energy, but it was meant to demonstrate the practicability of solar energy so that investors and venture capitalists can come in and run the business.
Are these private entities now running the business?
Well, I will say to some extent. The EVC was sceptical about letting venture capitalists come in; he believed that they are usually scared of testing their risk appetite unless they see the numbers. He advised that we run the NSEL as a limited liability company. Thus, in 2013 the former Solar Energy Manufacturing Company was incorporated as NASENI Solar Energy Limited. When it was established, milestones were set, to help investors understand the trajectory of the solar energy sector.
So, NSEL continued with the solar PV manufacture from the Completely Knocked Down (CKD), but gradually local content started coming in and, today, the manpower is 100 per cent local. For the contribution of local content, we are in the neighbourhood of about 23 per cent because we have some local things that we are doing and it is longer the business as usual – we do not just assemble anything from anywhere.
We are in the tropical region where the sun is easily accessible. If we get involved and develop the sector, jobs will be created and de-migration will take place and people will no longer have that excessive appetite to be in the cities because energy will be available in these locales and their surrounding areas.
Sadly, despite our best efforts, solar setups are still being imported by Nigerians and foreigners alike and a lot of solar jobs are still given to foreigners by individuals and the government. But, to check this, NASENI, through the chairman, contributed significantly to the drafting of the Executive Order 005 which, fortunately, has been endorsed and we are pushing a lot ofother things through that order. People are supposed to be aware that whenever you have a facility with the capacity to deliver on any aspect of service or product that can be delivered locally, you must patronise that local outfit. That is one of the ways we are pursuing awareness and patronage.
[To be candid] the Nigerian market is large, a centroid for West Africa and the African region. So, if we look at what we are generating presently, it can barely feed huge industries, SMEs, cottage industries or homes.
Can solar energy power these entities you mentioned?
Yes. There is the ‘captive’ solar power. For instance, if you run a tea-processing factory, yoghurt factory or water-processing factory, you can power everything with solar at costs that are recoverable in the short term, due to the consistency in power supply. Also, your output and customers will be assured in dealing with you, targets will be set and if you translate that to other members of the chain you will see the multiplier effect.
Additionally, direct and indirect jobs will be created and investments will begin to stream in as people realise the importance of solar power.
In 2015, for example, you could move around Abuja and not see a solar panel. The story is different now; they are everywhere, as people use them to support their businesses because solar energy can power anything from 1KVA, 1MW to multiple MWs.
Many nations that spend so much on hydro-power electricity in Europe and parts of Asia are investing heavily in solar energy. Now, if we – who are in the tropics – throw down the gauntlet and tow the path of solar power, insisting on using it to power our SMEs, homes, offices, industries etc., and invest in it, solar energy will be better than energy from the mix in the long-run.
Considering your position as an expert in solar energy, what percentage of Nigerians’ power needs can solar meet?
Without question, 100 per cent. In one of his press conferences, President Muhammadu Buhari promised that it is feasible by 2030 when 30 per cent of the energy mix must come from renewable energy and a greater part from solar.
As we speak Nigeria’s population is estimated to be 200 million and these people live in about 80 million houses. If you were to put 0.8 per cent or 1Kilowatts of power in these homes, it will have an impact on health and the quality of life, on job creation and wealth creation, on environmental safety and protection, as well as the amount we spend on other things. It will create more for us to spend on relevant things and improve security.
On the other hand, you are providing the opportunity for people to be engaged. Solar energy is already impacting irrigation agriculture. If you check out NASENI’s collaboration with the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), it is anticipated that farmers can engage in 3-cycle farming annually, because of the deployment of solar energy. This will have an impact on food security, education etc.
How exactly can solar energy improve the security situation in the country?
First, I mentioned that when you improve visibility, the crime rate drops. Secondly, when you develop it and everyone knows they are being watched (24/7 CCTV) crime becomes detectable and criminals within will be easy to apprehend via real-time transmitters and functional databases. Persons will think twice before committing crimes. What we are developing is security-enabled, an all-in-one system sufficient to cover certain areas to enhance visibility and improve crime detection.
Any partnerships with the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) or any telecoms company?
In NASENI, we don’t just go into research or come out with things that are yet to be scientifically proven. As I mentioned, we have a project that we had to go to Spain to defend and at the conference – the biggest in engineering education in the world, organised by the World Engineering Education Forum (WEEF) and the Global Engineering Education Council (GEEC). Physically, due to COVID-19, that conference attracted 100 participants and 400 online.
For us to take that kind of project there and survive, it shows that we have put in some effort. That is why you see us taking our time. Even in the patent office, you don’t just go and dump on them; the local patent is still ongoing and if there are questions it is queried until you can scientifically satisfy certain conditions.
So, we are factoring those things in, as we engage in preliminary testing. We are meeting the stakeholders. Before deployment, we will get to such a stage and part of it is the design. We have discussed with the DSS, so we are not leaving any stone unturned. We are people who want a design, a product or a device that is scientifically proven, with sufficient engineering content, guaranteed performance and efficiency that will fulfill its purpose.
As regards the capacity of the NASENI Solar Limited to meet the energy needs of Nigeria, since this factory [alone] cannot do it, what plans are being presented to the government to replicate this factory across the country?
It is part of the mandate of NASENI solar energy to not just produce or manufacture solar panels and other solar solutions but, also, to motivate and assist investors who are willing to contribute to the energy sector.
On collaborators, yes, some private investors and state governments are coming up – one state government is ready to be an off-taker. It is waiting to make assured payments and distribute to people in the stateafter we have done all the designs and development.
As we speak, we are aware that some health facilities have closed offices because there is no source of power. Some use phones, lanterns or candlelight for procedures. They need this kind of help to come back on and deliver primary health services to their communities.
What is the level of income that NASENI Solar Energy can generate when it operates at full capacity?
This question is relative, in the sense that it is infinitive. When we are operating full blast, it is infinity because if we are operating at full patronage, we have sufficient facilities. The development will come and so will more installed capacity.
Again, installed capacity is difficult to say and it is just that I will tell you that we will be doing good business. For instance, if we produce 270/270/270 what we get is likely different when we are producing 80/80/80 – that is on the manufacturing side. If we go to training/training/training, what we will be getting will be different, as in the case of Katsina. If that frequency increases, it will be different from when we train alone, without installation.
With increased patronage, the sky is the starting point. The market is huge, the need is massive and the opportunity is large.
Are there no challenges at all?
There are. That is why we are still carrying out part-production. If we have the patronage, we would engage in continuous production and will no longer have to target production.
Is the cost of NASENI panel competitive or relative?
When you want to buy a quality vehicle you cannot say that. Here, we are talking about quality, not cost. We can beat our chest in this industry and say that our products are the best across the country.
…and the production level?
We have never done 1MW in a year. Nobody has challenged us with a request of 1MW in a year. I have been here since 2015 and the challenges are about 4 or 5 which can be summarised into one.
The first is patronage; Second is the need for more facilities and third is the relevant and cognate manpower. The fourth is operational finance, while the fifth is a waiver for the procurement of solar-related raw materials. All the five issues can be traced to the first; If there is patronage, we can gradually develop and take care of ourselves. People say our [panels] are relatively expensive. They are so because of economies of scale. However, we can guarantee the quality and there are no hidden facts about the processes.
How will the waste from solar energy be disposed of?
The way we produce, it is difficult to have significant waste. Our quality control is continuous. We avoid the waste from the point of request for raw materials. If we know that we are going to make 175 solar panels, we request glass for that quantity and parts with certain certifications.
Over the last five years, we have not generated up to a carton of waste because right from the request it is calculated by the production committee. Besides the issue of shattering glasses (which is still a sore point with Standards Organsation of Nigeria (SON) during inspection visits – Although we have a patent certificate, SON wants to leave with a sample for every inspection visit it embarks upon but that is not convenient for us. When they come, we ask to test initially for confirmation and let them have samples), our production processes are certified by MANCAP and, today, we are ISO-compliant and also certified 9000:1.