The National Co-ordinator of “Operation Light Up Rural Nigeria” (O-LURN) and Senior Special Assistant to the Minister of Power on Access to power, Dr. Albert Okorogu takes Nigerian Newsdirect’s Yusuf Hassan through the ongoing efforts of the ministry towards achieving the sterling objectives of the rural electrification initiative recently launched by President Goodluck Jonathan. Dr. Okorogu who bags a Ph.D in Optical and Laser engineering, returned to Nigeria in 2013 after 20 years working experience with the United States Air force Aerospace Corporation as the head of Operations.
What is the O-LURN initative really about?
I am trying to let you know that the minister has a particular mandate to extend the national grid to the rural area in order to provide electricity to the rural area, that is part of the mandate. The initiative called Operation Light Up Rural Nigeria (O-LURN) that was recently launched by Mr. President is meant to provide access devoid of the national grid pending the time the nation grid will get to them. This is not a replacement for the national grid but it is an initiative to provide immediate access to those who need it most especially most of the population who live in the rural area. That is what it is all about and it is meant to exploit all renewable energy resources and if you look at what our needs are in electricity, it is all across the world not just in Nigeria, most of our needs are just in lighting, just to see. So what it is meant for is to provide a quick access to those who live in the rural area to brighten the environment,that is why we chose he phrase “Light UP”. It literally means lighting up the rural areas, creating electricity, just some kind of brightening up the environment. While we provide the basic need for this people, since the provision or extension of the national grid to this area is going to come, while that is coming, it is just like asking them to hold on to this. It is like going to a restaurant to eat and you are served an appetiser, and that is not the main course, the main course is the national grid. O-LURN is an appetiser we are serving the people to hold on to lighting while other needs are going to be provided. Let me also tell you that O-LURN was premised on one important criterion and that is, it is meant to provide access to the rural areas dwellers who do not have access to the national grid, mark the word. If they have access to the national grid, they do not qualify to be electrified under this scheme. So what we are doing is a very beautiful project to provide that and one other thing is that it is meant to provide a meagre one Mega Watt of electricity to the community. We can’t provide more than that because according to National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) mandate, if we have to generate more than one megawatt, we must go through licensing and regulatory process which often takes up to 18months to obtain. We are providing less than one mega watt to stay under the radar, to stay within the law. Let me ask you there is really indeed no village that will require more one megawatt of electricity. We are not talking about the industrialised villages to drive heavy machines. This is just some kind of placeholder scheme that is designed to provide lighting to really address and bridge the lighting gap in lighting needs of people in the rural areas. That is what it is meant to be. It is a wonderful program we are trying to fully implement and it is going on.
The Renewable Energy Master Plan (REMP) tends to target at least a rise to 75 percent access to electricity in the next 10years by 2025, how well do you think things can really work out with the current level of operation?
When you say with the current level of operation, let me clarify something, you understand that just like when you try to teach a baby how to walk, watch how a baby walks, a baby stands up, staggers for a while and falls but when a baby learns how to do the walking, you will be the one crying foul to stop the baby from walking around. This is akin to what we are doing here, renewable energy is not a new technology in the world but in Nigeria, it is practically new . You know the portfolio we are talking about here tends to cover 75 percent of rural areas by 2025, that is okay but let me also tell you something. Everything that we do is a function of funding so what we have here is that the federal government of Nigeria is not supposed to be in the business of running electricity, that is why we unbundled the PHCN, now what is going to happen is that we are leading the race now. We are creating an enabling environment and we are setting up the whole thing and once it is set up, even we will cover that before 2025 and I tell you how.
The issue that we have now is making everything, creating the environment and creating a leveled playing field so that people can come in and play. We have numerous investors coming. May be you have not heard. Nigeria is a go-to place all across the world, the power Africa, Jaika from Japan, GIV from Germany, France.
They are all targeting Nigeria because we have abundance of sunshine to exploit. The power sector in Nigeria is a veritable sector to exploit and invest in. So all across the world, everybody is trooping to Nigeria to invest in the renewable energy arena because we have a lot to offer. What the people are waiting for is for us to set up the enabling environment which we have by the way. We have the renewable energy draft policy which we have hopefully the minister will push it on and the president will sign on the renewable energy. We will soon have a renewable energy policy and I can tell you that is what has being holding back massive investment in this area. It is going to happen but it is just a question of time that you will see this whole thing turn around, we are doing a whole lot on our side to set that platform rolling.
What is the off-grid capacity of the O-LURN project for the communities you are targeting from the pilot scheme?
As you are aware that we flagged it up in January, implementing three pilot which the president flagged off. If you heard the resident talk on that day, he talked about replicating it all across the 36 states of the federation. The president even said the presidency is going to develop one pilot in each senatorial district of the 36 states and the F.C.T . If we calculate the number of communities the presidency is going to take care of, it will be about a hundred and eleven communities covering all the 36 states and that is coming. We are replicating it in the country because we are abundantly blessed as you can tell the sun shines everywhere in this country in spite of the rain. The improvement in the solar technology even makes it possible, you know we used to have this perennial problem. For instance, how do you power systems at night when the sun is not shinning or how do you power systems when it is raining? These perennial problems are being addressed if not completely being solved. What we are waiting for is for these systems to come. Those things are no longer limiters to the deploying of solar technology in the world. The prices of these systems are coming down in so many places. In fact, do yo know that World Bank studies of Nigeria have identified some places in Nigeria where the price of photovoltaic panels are comparable and sometimes cheaper than diesel. So we are moving across to the whole country as we speak now we are in the process of finalising agreements with so many companies that are coming in on their own to do BOO – Behold, Own and Operate, what they are trying to do is to go into this communities build up and supply these communities with power. They own and service this power systems and when we have finalised arrangements with NERC, they embed and they collect tariff to the agreement of everybody, this is what we are doing to find a service agreement with these companies. We have companies that are coming into agreements with us to take up as much as 30 to 50 communities to develop on their own supplying each community with a maximum of one megawatt of electricity. This is going on very fast and we are very happy with the development so far. The reason why you have not seen much going on yet, a lot is going on and it does appear to people like there is nothing, is because at this point we are shuffling the papers and trying to finalise every thing and put everything on the ground and you will see everything coming. On a daily basis at the ministry we have our development partners, thousands of them trooping in wanting to be part of this. This is a wonderful initiative and I encourage all Nigerians to support this initiative. It will provide a quick access to rural development.
Phillips from Netherlands and Sneider from France are also partnering on this project, so how do you intend to indigenalise the skills they are bringing in, so that when the expatriates leave the projects can be handled by Nigerians on a sustainable basis?
That is a wonder question, we do have a local content law in this country and I tell you the pilot that we have developed, we have a local company that developed two out of the three pilot schemes. The two pilots were actually built by a Nigerian company because we have a local content law. The reason Phillips and Sneider are there is because they were the first to answer our clarion call to deploy and develop a pilot. After all we have had, I can tell you 90 percent of the company that are coming in now are indigenous Nigerian companies in partnership with their foreign partners. O-LURN, I can tell about 95 percent of the process is now being driven on the private side by indigenous companies not foreign and even when Philips and Sneider came to deploy the project, most of the things they did were sourced from the local communities. For example, before we went into one of the pilot villages called Durumi, the village was in total darkness and life in the village was almost insecure. There was no light. When Sneider and Phillips came in, we provided electricity and do you know that community now near up to 24 hours power supply now? They now have stores around and the people setting up stores allover and the people are being empowered. In fact, I encourage you to leave Lagos and get to Durumi and find out for yourself because when we are saying this on television, people actually think it is a joke. I encourage people to take a drive to Durumi and see how life has already changed for them. When Phillip did the project they employed the villagers, that was part of our mandate no company would come into our country to do it without the locals. We are going to source it locally and people who will do it are going to be Nigerians. We are going to do it of Nigeria, by Nigerian and for Nigerians. That is the bottom-line and that is how we are following our local content law. We do not have Phillip and Sneider importing people from Netherlands and France to work on the projects, that is not true. We do have local companies they are partnering with to help execute the projects and that is how it is going to be for any foreign partner that comes into the country to work in the power sector and that is how it is going to be.
How does this project intend to ward off counterfeiting or fake renewable energy devices that could be brought into the country because of the Nigerian factor of importation of fake products like what happens at the Alaba market in Lagos?
Yes, let me tell you something. Part of our problem as you know is that there is corruption everywhere but we cannot be scared of corruption but we have to counter it and how are we going to do it. Like you said if we allow this kind of attitude to infiltrate this area, it is going to be sabotaged and it is not going to be sustainable. Now the way we are going about this is that before now we have the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) whose primary function is supposed to be for verification and standardization of the product, we are not relying on that alone.
We are trying as we speak to partner and encourage NASENI, an outfit of the ministry of science and technology, to establish a standard testing facility through which all the renewable energy technology products that come into Nigeria will have to go through certification and verification before they are deployed.
You are aware solar technology is not new in Nigeria. We have these solar lights littered all over the country most of them are not working because Nigerians have brought in substandard products that have really poisoned the good intentions of the technology. We are aware of all these and we are addressing them. So we will subject all products that are going to be deployed in the country under standard verification and validation as it is done internationally. That is what we are going to do we are handling it. We have a task for the sustainability of these initiative because we know that in the past, people have come up with ideas, this ideas we are floating is not new, people have tried but the problem is that there was no clear path to sustainability that is why those projects collapsed. I honestly believe we have a handle on this. We are addressing ever y portion of this and we welcome all suggestions from the people. We are trying to cover all basics to ensure that these project stand the test of time.
What are you doing to ensure that the projects boost the crude farming systems, considering the fact that project is rural area-based and the most popular occupation of the areas is engage in farming ?
You know this is green technology, we have different phases as I told you that O-LURN comes up in different phases. The first phase is to provide lighting to the rural dwellers and the second phase which is that which requires licensing, we are also addressing that, to create power that is more than one mega watts of electricity. This is for irrigation, green house and crop production. We are pushing this out heavily. First of all, we want to satisfy the lighting need of the rural dwellers. Then we provide them with the provision of more capacity of systems that would take care of their farming and industrial needs. O-LURN is not just going to be limited to the rural area, for instance, if you have three concentric circles, imagine the first circle as being the urban area, second circle being the semi-urban and third being rural, the module of electricity which most of our foreign partners have come with are to dwell in the first circle which is the urban area because it is not profitable for them to penetrate the semi-urban or rural areas. So they do not intend to go into those areas because it is not profitable at all. Now what we are doing as the federal government is that we are approaching the solution to these problems coming from the out-most circle where the rural areas dwellers are and moving towards the centre. So the O-LURN is not limited to the rural areas alone whereas before now what our foreign investors and partners have done is to move from the centre towards the end and most of the time they don’t even see the urban settlers as being profitable because they don’t make much money from there they only spend their time trying to provide access to electricity those in the urban whereas while those in the semi-urban are left out. That is why we have huge gap in the electricity supply in this country. The O-LURN module is to move from the out most centres, for those Nigerians who have gone far-flung from the national grid to move towards the centre and that is our module.
So as this move to the centre what are the efforts to leverage on the current housing schemes to provide green housing?
As part of the renewable energy policy, we are creating enabling environment to encourage real estate developers to imbibe in their development schemes renewable energy efficiency process. If you look at most of these housing development projects, we have many semi-urban areas where people are developing housing estates that are far away from the city centres. Part of this initiative is to provide lighting access to those areas and we are encouraging the real estate developers to come in and take advantages of this. There are natural resources all around us that could be tapped into to provide lighting for the developments that are taking place all around major cities in Nigeria.
What are the major challenges O-LURN is facing currently?
The major one is funding and the major problem with anybody in this world is the depth of the pocket. We are starved of funding but the good news is just that we are trying to move away from the idea that the federal government should be the sole sponsor of everything in Nigeria. A lot of private people are coming in to assist and they come with their money even though it is a major challenge for the government.
How soon do we see this initiative gaining carbon credits?
That is as soon as the projects start kicking off and we will begin to gain our carbon credits. What we are doing here is to reduce the emission footprint in Nigeria. When we clean up our environment and start deploying devices to provide electricity devoid of fossil fuel. That is a clean environment and we will gain our carbon credit. That is coming and the world is noticing. If you notice Power Africa is up in Nigeria, Germany and France are also in and the world is taking notice of the efforts Nigeria is making and we will earn our carbon credit.