Breaking the Grid 5,000MW Electricity Ceiling

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Samuel Akinyele Caulcrick

It would be an understatement to describe Nigeria’s public utility electricity supply as a puzzle. It is even more worrisome that the government, the industry and the general public, consider the underlying causes as “the elephant in the room”. When the old Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, was unbundled in 2013, the majority of the people in Nigeria heaved a sigh of relief thinking that would unlock the logjam in the grid power supply. It has not.

Electricity, in modern nations, plays a significant role in their socio-economic and technological development, and it is the most convenient and easily convertible form of energy. It, however, comes with a cost, and the cheapest model comes from a grid network because of its economies of scale. Electricity is increasingly being deployed to reduce energy conversion inefficiencies in any economy, in modern times, to power industries; automobiles; trains and buses; home appliances and working tools.

Electricity has unique characteristics, in the sense that it cannot, at this time, be put into storage on a national scale, like putting oil into drums to be used at a later time. That, however, is changing as advancement in technology increases the capacity of electricity storage, in the likes of lithium-ion battery and that of vanadium redox flow battery. The main problem in Nigeria today is not that of generation capacity, as generally believed, but that of stabilisation in the electricity grid.

Nigeria has over 12,900 megawatts of installed generation capacity under the GenCos, and this does not preclude the privately generated energy by individuals and companies. The estimate is over 60 million private generators scattered over the Nigerian landscape, of which more than 58 million are petrol (PMS) driven. The burning of gasoline, the subsidised PMS, to generate electricity is the most inefficient form of energy conversion and a colossal waste in the economy. It accounts for over 43% of the daily use of PMS and as such, over 40% of the subsidies. That, however, is the topic for another day.

While the bickering goes on between the DisCos and the Transmission Company of Nigeria, TCN, on who is responsible for the various system collapse in the grid, the issue of insufficient gas, turnaround maintenance, and idle generators of the GenCos are constant narratives. The most contentious of all is the unrealistic tariffs that do not cover the cost of grid electricity supply, commonly called “non-cost-reflective tariffs”. The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC, has done well to protect the consumers for its drive for every electricity consumer to be metered. However, its delay in approving a reflective cost tariff jeopardises the sustainability of power supply, and it does not matter who owns the DisCos, private or government. The widespread electricity thefts by consumers are also alarming.

Why is Nigeria’s public electricity supply fraught with frequent power outages? The answer, partly, lies in how electrons flow in electricity. In specific applications, such as heating or the startup of an electric motor, there is a rush of current called “inrush current”, which is sometimes noticeable as a flicker, particularly in a low capacity electricity supply. An unconstraint use of such appliances in a regime of small capacity, like the widespread use of air conditioners in present-day Nigeria, is often the cause of system collapse. Every generator has a built-in spinning reserve that revs up to compensate for this inrush current, but there are limitations, and of course, there is a cost to it also.

Unlike during application of heating that has near constant inrush current, that of an electric motor is temporary, in milliseconds, and usually about six times or more of the rated power of the electric motor; it happens briefly only during startups, after which it returns to the nominal current. A typical example of an electric motor is the compressors in the air conditioners. It means the grid must always have enough capacity to compensate for the inrush current whenever needed to prevent system collapse. In our various private generation, we are in full control of usage and easily take caution, but on the grid, it is difficult to predict, for instance, how many air conditioners’ compressors would start up at the same time across the network.

The conventional solution has its root from the 19th Century practice by producing more energy than needed to always compensate for disturbances on the grid, such as the inrush current, without disruption to supply. However, when the reserve capacity is idle, it goes to waste because of limited storage on a national scale. Since Thomas Edison built the first power station in New York in 1882, electricity grid supply and management has remained the same, and still providing solutions for the 21st Century. When converting electricity for heating, it uses up the excess power generated continuously, but for electric motors operations, the reserve capacity goes to waste for the most part – only used to start the compressors. It is no wonder that the increasing incidences of system collapse coincide with increasing installations and widespread use of air conditioners in Nigeria without a substantial increase in the electricity supply capacity.

The Transmission Company of Nigeria, TCN, is mandated to stabilise the grid. It is currently investing to upgrade the reserve capacity. Its choice is to increase the spinning reserve capacity, but that has its downside – it takes too much time to come online, and the fastest is about 10 minutes, and some may take hours or a day. Most Nigerians are familiar with uninterrupted power supply (UPS) and inverters to store electricity for emergency use, and come online in milliseconds with the correct frequency. It means, the 21st Century electricity supply must depart from the 19th Century practice of storage and mimic those of the likes of inverters.

Fortunately, technology has advanced to provide storage in large volume on a national scale using either a lithium-ion battery or the vanadium redox flow battery. Renewable energy can even power the supplementary-reserve capacity to cut down on the cost of wastage on the grid.

In the book, Power In Nigeria, will there ever be light?, written by the author and published in November 2018, an idea to break the 5,000 megawatts ceiling of power supply in Nigeria is proposed with no additional burden to the treasury. It calls for a shift in policy and change of attitude of Nigerians. The book is available free for download in www.powerinnigeria.com.

•Caulcrick writes from Lagos