‘With N50,000, electricity can be provided in most rural homes through solar technology’
The managing director/ chief executive officer, ISC Industries Limited, Dr Patrick Owelle, believes that solar energy can be produced for homes at a reduced price to help manufacturers and for domestic use. In this interview with Akinola Ajibade, he speaks on challenges and efforts he is making to site a company that would manufacture solar equipment in Nigeria by 2008.
You seem to be in the vanguard of the use of solar electricity. What informed your decision to do so?
We started sensitizing the populace on the use of solar energy in Nigeria about a year ago because we believe through that ,we would be able to improve the power sector and save the economy from destruction. Nigeria has been depending on oil for sometime and we believe that crude oil is going to be exhausted very soon and we came up with the idea of alternative energy to help the economy.
Solar energy is believed to have received little attention in the country. What efforts are you making to create awareness for it?
We are doing a lot of things. We are holding seminars and solar trade fair and conference just took place in Abuja. We have brought together a lot of training programmes in Nigeria especially the Niger Delta. We have media publicity and we are in partnership with some banks for funding of consumer or retail financing of the business so that people would be aware of what we can do. We have partnership with banks and those banks are going to advertise and promote solar as alternative mode of electricity. And those customers willing to purchase solar energy would be given financing. For instance, somebody buying solar equipment of N250,000 would be requested to pay 10 per cent and we carry the balance for them over three or five years. That would lessen the burden of the investment to a minimum level. It is like you are gaining electricity for nothing and the pay back time is short. It is a win-win for the costumers, industries and Nigeria in particular.
Capacity utilization in the manufacturing sector is low and due to a number of problems especially low power supply. What are the efforts being made to carry manufacturers along?
We are doing a lot to sensitize the manufacturing sector that we have an alternative to rely on as against the national grid and generators in which they pay highly for the cost of diesel and at the same time pollute the environment. We feel that right now we can provide solar system at a comparable price to the cost of diesel, generators, maintenance and replacement cost. The solar electricity is the future and we complement the efforts made in Europe in Nigeria and Africa in particular and we begin to expose the benefits of solar electricity to every stakeholder in the Nigerian economy.
There are two modes of electricity which are generator/diesel and solar energy. Which of the two is cost effective?
Solar energy by far is the least expensive form of electricity in the world right now. That is why we have countries like Canada, United Kingdom, USA and Germany embracing solar electricity simply because it is absolutely free. The thing was given to us by God free and it is not exhaustible. You don’t pay anything when you install the system. Once the system is installed, you don’t pay for maintenance, diesel or petrol. There is no replacement cost because we give 25 years warranty and we put life expectancy to be anywhere between 50 and 100 years and I think that would outlive us. The solar energy is by far the least expensive mode of electricity anyone can think of. The tariff or import duties as well as making the importation of products, not just solar equipment tax-free or duty-free. We are also trying to find ways that we can clear these goods and efficiently. Sometimes, due to the capacitors on the batteries, you end up spending too much or more than half of the goods at the ports. That is not good for the business because we are tying up investments at the ports. Those are the kind of issues I think are the obstacles we are facing. Another thing is the initial cost of solar equipment. But we are doing everything to reduce the initial cost by actually citing manufacturing facilities in the country.
Are you talking about manufacturing the components of solar energy?
Yes. If you look behind, you will see that we have actually started fabricating some of the street lights right here in Lagos. That is a prototype of a streetlight that is fabricated in Lagos. We believe that we can reduce the cost of the system by about 50 per cent within the next few months. These systems would be vastly affordable to anybody in this country.
Are there places where you have been contracted to provide solar energy in the country?
Yes. We have installed over 100 solar systems in Lagos alone. We have installed some systems in Ibadan, Benin City and some of the Eastern states as well. So we’ve done quite a lot of work but we are in the process of negotiating tremendous volume of work in Nigeria because people are beginning to see the benefits of solar electricity in the country. It is clean, environmentally safe, no noise pollution and cost effective. By and large, it is risk free, you don’t have dangers of combustion as with diesel, or petrol burning up your house. Above all, it is extremely free.
Many policies have been formulated but they never see the light of day. As good as your presentation on solar energy,is, can the system be sustained?
As l said earlier, we are actually seeing the system all over the world, but the question anybody would ask is: why are countries like Germany, Spain, UK, USA, Australia etc embracing solar electricity when they do not have the kind of sunlight we have in Africa? The average radiation level in Nigeria is between 3.5-7 kilowatts hour per square metre per day. What you get in Europe is about a third of that number. So God has given us the gifts of solar radiation and we must take advantage of it. I think sustainability is absolutely there because with the system that is doing marvelously well, we think that for 25-50 years to come, we would not have problems with that. The system has been working in other parts of the world and would work very well in the country.
You said earlier that you have been making arrangements with banks. Are you also carrying the Government along?
We have been talking to the federal and state governments to provide rural electrification. We we have solar equipment that are cheaper, and which can electrify rural Nigeria completely. We can install systems in homes at the cost of about N50,000 as opposed to someone going home without electricity while using a candle or lantern. They can turn on the solar system and have electricity in their apartments. We are at infancy stage; we are talking to governments to look at what we are doing as street lights (through solar system) in urban centres and markets. Our project would change the face of the country almost immediately, and it is cost efficient to do so because places where electricity or transformers would be used, we can as well take solar energy there to light up the places.
How are you to access fund for such laudable projects?
We just signed a memorandum of understanding; by end of 2008, we would be manufacturing solar panels at a reduced rate in the country. That is the most important component of the solar system. Concerning the issue of funds, we have achieved what we have done so far through private funding and private individuals. We are confident of getting fund. It would not be an obstacle for us to move forward.
Supposing the government is trying to provide solar electricity to rural areas, can you give us estimates?
I cannot because l don’t know the cost which the government would be looking at. But l can safely say that if we look at N50,000 per household, that would be a good number to start with. But l don’t know how many households would be provided for with the energy.
Are there any efforts being made to ensure the security of the solar system?
We have made efforts to ensure that our systems are tamper-resistant. I don’t think anybody can say anything is tamper-free. But our systems come with interlocking keys, and you must have those keys to be able to get the solar panels off. So, it is difficult to steal our solar panels. Lastly, all our solar panels come with unique identification numbers. So, if l sell a solar panel to you now, and l know that the panel is xyz; if a panel is stolen, all you have to do is to report it, and we know exactly who stole it. I will tell you that we have less than 0.1 per cent of such cases in the last five years.