Beyond coal-fired energy policy
During the 2016 World Bank/IMF General Meetings in Washington, D.C. recently, the Finance Minister accused multilateral institutions controlled by Western countries of double standard for not supporting Nigeria’s plans to source World Bank funds to build a coal power plant. She argued that whereas, “the entire Western industrialisation was built on coal-fired energy… After polluting the atmosphere for 100 years… the West should first stop using coal before telling us to stop … (thereby) pushing us to the cycle of underdevelopment.” The minister’s position raises a number of issues, which should be examined in order to show the right way forward.
First, the minister did not conform to the administration’s implicit standpoint on climate change, which may be gleaned from the president’s actions. President Muhammadu Buhari was a party to the December 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. He signed the agreement in New York during the September 2016 UN General Assembly Meeting. Buhari also attended the 2015 UN General Assembly, which adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
The Paris Agreement aims to keep “global average temperature below two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial levels.” In the same vein, “meeting SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) will require increasing access to electricity, the take-up of clean fuels and renewable energies, and energy efficiency.” These events preceded Adeosun’s excerpted statement above. Therefore, it is important for the Buhari administration to imbibe the implications of such agreements and meetings as well as for government functionaries to be properly briefed on matters to be discussed at international meetings.
Second, the minister missed the significant changes in the fuel mix for large-scale generation of electricity. It has been established that “per unit of electricity, brown coal emits nearly two times as much carbon dioxide as natural gas and black coal emits somewhat less than brown.” Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that causes global warming. Nigerian coal is predominantly brown. While 81 per cent of electricity used worldwide is generated by burning fossil fuel, the cleaner natural gas has since the 1990s accounted for more new power generation than coal.
By 2014, the contribution of natural gas to the world’s total electricity had risen to 22 per cent. Moral? Given the reality of global warming, any country may exercise the sovereign right to decide and finance with own funds the fuel mix for its electricity supply within the ambit of international agreements. But it is out of place to expect multilateral institutions, which are guided by international protocols, to advance funds for new power stations that use any fuel whose emission levels increase global warming.
The third thing to note carefully, is the accusation by the minister that non-support for the intended obsolescent coal power projects entrenches a cycle of under-development. This is not only unconvincing but also amounts to another attempt to shift to multilateral institutions blame for the administration’s very poor performance in the area of public electricity supply. There has been no functional coal power plant for close to two decades. Why will the administration accord priority to prospecting for multilateral loan to build a new coal power station?
It is remarkable that the minster did not mention natural gas, the star fossil fuel for generation of electricity. Yet Nigeria is endowed with far larger natural gas than crude oil deposits. There are 15 natural gas-fired power stations in Nigeria and other West African countries that suffer hiccups with gas supplies owing to financing and largely political reasons. Nigeria exports liquefied natural gas to several industrialised countries including those that influence the multilateral institutions. So, the institutions are unlikely to balk at requests for funds to improve gas supplies to the existing power plants should there be need for external financing.
Similarly, finance for new gas supply pipelines and new gas-fired stations (it takes about 18 months to construct a new 1000 megawatt plant) will be forthcoming if the avoidable problems that have bogged down the petroleum industry are removed.
Doubtless, resolution of the issues of the petroleum sector presents a sure-fire and faster road to bridging the power infrastructure gap that building coal-to-power plants from scratch. And there will be the added advantage of reducing both gas flaring emissions and environmental degradation in the oil producing areas.
In any case, there is a sense in which it can be argued that the Buhari administration may be waging a secret war against the natural gas producing areas with a view to confronting the underlying national question in the context of resource control? And so, could he have sent the Finance Minister to Washington, D.C.to explore the alternative albeit obsolescent means to produce electricity for the other sections of the country? The answer to these puzzles may be blowing in the wind for now.
Whichever way the wind blows, the Buhari administration should relent in efforts that will pave the way for an end to the public power supply problems. But clean fuels and modern technology should be used, in this connection.