‘Why renewable energy solutions are critical to Nigeria’s development’
Tokunbo Tonade is the founder and Chief Executive Officer, Concept Technologies, an indigenous renewable energy development company with strength in solar technology solutions. In this interview with ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, Tonade raised the need for Nigeria to adequately invest in renewable energy; going by the vast solar resources the country is blessed with.
Can we get to know what Concept Technologies is all about?
Concept Technologies was not registered to become what it is today actually. It was basically more of bringing peoples’ ideas to live for them. For instance, one of the first jobs we did was to give somebody a false wall, where you have bookshelf on one side and a television set on the other. At a switch of a button, the false wall comes around and revealed whatever is on the other side. So, when people come to us with their concept, we use technology to bring it to live. But as time went on, we got into a concept of building generators with vehicle engines and that led to what changed my mind to renewable energy. So Concept Technologies is into renewable energy from the point of view of saving the planet from global warming.
Can we say Nigeria is exploring the enormous potential of solar energy at the moment?
The answer is an absolute no. This is because most people don’t pay attention to it. If you look at the world globally, you will see that Nigeria is closer to the equatorial belt than countries like Denmark, Sweden. Most of the bucking states use more solar than Nigeria does. They only have about four hours of sunlight per day but Nigeria has predominantly 12 hours and eight hours of serious sunlight. Still, we are not using half, or even one-third of what Germany, Sweden and so many countries are using.
I have been trying the best I can to advocate for renewable energy so that the potential can be seen. We do what we call cost-benefit analysis for them. You are buying a generator; you are using X-amount of money to install it, you buy diesel and fuel yearly. The people manning the generator are paid, when we add everything up, they are higher than what you will use to install solar energy.
At Concept Technologies, we give something that has 25 years warranty at N120 million, and it will break even in two years, unlike your generator where you are spending N500 million in 10 years and you are still spending all the way. Sometimes, people listen to us, sometimes; they say we are talking rubbish. What I do basically is to start from the grassroots.
One of our company’s products, 150 watts solar energy facility, goes for N180, 000, despite that interest on loans has been rising. Every year a bank spends N50 million to power each of its branches, in 10 years, it would have spent N500 million to power a branch alone, but with solutions from Concept Technologies, it is far cheaper and more reliable to explore renewable energy solutions.
To demonstrate our capability, on Saturday, we launched the first three-bedroom solar powered home in Lagos. What we are doing is to start from the grassroots. I held a meeting with Diamond Bank, and we are looking at ways the bank can take advantage of the solar energy plans. We are doing things at the grassroots to make them accept solar and solve the power problems.
The African Union (AU) New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) has set 2020 as a year for member nations to meet the renewable target. Is this realistic in Nigeria?
Meeting the target on renewable energy in Africa is possible, but not likely to happen because it is not in the interest of the first world for that to happen.
We need to understand that whatever they design must always benefit them first. We may not be able to look at that because of our gullibility and lack of capacity to think critically. For me, if a white man tells me he wants to give me $50 million to do something, I tried to look at the string that is attached to that money. They will never do anything that will not benefit them first. Until Africans come together, and do things together, nothing good will happen.
NEPAD said it will give us water in 1999, but the milestone was never met. NEPAD will only do things with hidden benefits that they will not let you see. I can guarantee you that 2020 will come and this issue will still be there.
What in specifics are the benefits of renewable energy solutions?
The benefits of solar energy on the economy are huge. The benefits for the economy are outstanding. The industries will be working and generating jobs and creating wealth. The carbon monoxide in our body is too high. The air we breathe in is being polluted daily by generators. Our body has far more affinity to carbon than the oxygen we are using. They have a carbon-based organic material. We are killing ourselves slowly and that is why some people sleep with generator and die in their sleep and they do not even know.
For the renewable energy business, what are the challenges?
The challenges faced by this business are enormous. In 2003, I was one of those that went to tell a particular company the gains of using renewable energy to power their office instead of generator. We submitted a fantastic write-up, and after six weeks of going back and forth, our inside person told us to forget about it, that they were just playing us. And I was shocked on why they should do that? Somebody high up there was supplying the diesel and was blocking the request. Those guys are so powerful. It is not just the power of money, but the power of control and can easily wave aside things that can benefit everybody provided it benefits them. Such hindrances still exist up till today.
If you go to the government that you want to do this, whoever you are talking to will be looking at what he stands to gain. Now, this project that is being launched was solely financed by me.
In the coming months, we shall be talking to Bank of Industry and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) on access to low-cost funds to enable the company produce at lower cost and compete effectively.
For better efficiency and management, a solar panel is supposed to face 25 degrees angle towards where the sun is going to set, but you find out most of them facing north, facing south and then the dust is the killer. There is need to ensure the solar panels are cleaned, say every three months so as to make them more efficient.
Solar Panel also needs security. If you go through some bridges in Lagos, you will discover that the rails have been removed…People are hungry! People will steal anything to survive, solar panels are not exempted. The batteries are not exempted and they are very expensive.
Are renewable energy experts like you engaging the government on adoption?
The renewable energy practitioners in Nigeria just came together some few weeks ago to have a single body that can approach the government and everyone else. I must say to you that I have not approached anyone and the reason is that I have been too busy running around for this my project for the past seven years. Now that the project has finished, I am sure I should start getting across to them. I have contacts of people at BOI that they have funds for these kinds of things. Why are the government not doing enough, like you asked, I think they have so much on their plate that is probably taken their concentration away from there. But I just feel that they have so many overwhelming problems to solve. I mean somebody who has not eating will not think about renewable energy. Until people like me get there that is when there could be much activities from the part of government. I think in the ministry of Environment, there is somebody who should be dealing with this kind of thing, but the problem is these people are difficult to see. Government has so many things they are concentrating on now.
Actually, the target is to have access to lump sum that will make me push this course. You know about the Free Trade Zone, Dangote Refinery will be taking up there in another 12 to 18 months, have you any idea the demand for housing in that area when that starts, over 24, 000 workers will be working there, that is what I am targeting with this. Having access to adequate funds, I should be able to come up with not less than 500 Bungalows powered by solar. What I have done, I mean the offgrid solar home to be commission on Saturday, there has not been one day of blink since September last year. I am not even connected to the grid, so there is no blink, I am always on. That is the power of solar technologies 24 hours. I actually waited for one year so that when I am talking I can pound my chest and say yes to its efficiency. Having access to fund will grant us opportunity to surprise people with the technology.
For your solutions, are the raw materials locally sourced?
The locally sourced materials are just the poles and the cables. The batteries, solar panels and charge controllers are imported. As a nation, we are not that technologically advanced enough to start doing those things here. But there are people producing charge controllers, inverters and what have you, but in our usual manner, people like to cut corners. There are certain safety features that are supposed to be in those systems that they don’t put into them. According to these people, people are reluctant to pay, so they reduce the standard and such end up burning peoples’ houses. So, it is just the poles and cables that are sourced here.
I must say this; the Forex issue has also affected the business. But, for me, I don’t do any importation whatsoever. There are people importing so many renewable energy products. I focus solely on configuration, designs and implementation. When I need to buy, I know those to call and they will supply the right materials.
We have been talking about sun, how does the rain affects the functions of the panel?
You must understand that it is not every day that rain falls. This system is designed to work 24 hours to 36 hours without sun. So after 36 hours without sun, a generator kicks in automatically for six hours. You don’t leave a battery in a discharge state for more than 36 hours, it will kill it. So, the generating set comes on for six hours to maintain the battery pending when the sun will come up. If the sun didn’t come up then, the generator still kick in. That was the design. When we started using the solar powered house, we discovered that the batteries went beyond 36 hours and when the sun comes up for more than three hours, it is automatically replenished. So we have a standby diesel generating set, but the solar is the main source, while the standby is to maintain the battery during raining season.
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