As Nigeria grapples with its power supply crisis, experts have said that the country can effectively generate up to 53,900 megawatts (MW) of electricity by 2030.
The country currently boasts of about one billion metric tonnes of coal reserves, which have been fully exploited and developed by successive administrations in the electricity energy mix.
Sadly, despite spending N1.8 trillion on the power sector since 2015, there has not been any significant improvement in electricity supply, as it continues to stagger on the brink.
It, therefore, becomes imperative to harness the potential in the solid minerals sector, to boost Nigeria’s electricity to channel the country on the path of industrialisation.
Speaking with The Guardian, on the potential of coal-to-power development, Head of Department, Petroleum Geology and Environmental Geology, University of Ibadan, Prof. Olugbenga Ehinola, noted that academic research revealed that coal could generate 9.9%, 13.8%, 15.3%, and 15.6% of Nigeria’s electricity in 2015, 2020, 2025 and 2030, respectively.
Alternatively, he said coal could generate 1,200MW, 4,400MW, 15,400MW and 53,900MW of electricity by 2015, 2020, 2025, and 2030, respectively.
Ehinola added that historically, Nigerian coal, which was mostly produced at Enugu and Kogi states, was mostly used as fuel for coal-powered electricity plants, coal-fired locomotives (mostly trains and marine vessels), and for cement production.
Citing several reports, he attributed the abandonment of coal in Nigeria to poor technical know-how coupled with geological and infrastructural weaknesses, adding that attempts to revive the mines to their original capacity failed.
He continued, “Even the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), which later metamorphosed into the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) that installed the Oji River Coal Power Plant abandoned coal, and converted the Ijora Power Plant that was using coal to oil.
“Subsequently, other power plants that were installed in Nigeria are gas thermal plants. Ever since the contribution of coal to energy in Nigeria declined drastically; it contributed 0.04% to Nigerian electricity in 1972 but attained its peak of 2.27% in 1973, and thereafter declined to 0% today.”
Ehinola noted that having previously failed in sustaining coal-to-power; the country had enacted more robust policies to support coal-to-power projects.
“The policies have yielded some early fruits with five coal-based power plants already announced. These projects involved the construction of five coal-based power plants that could supply a total of 4,800MW to the national grid. When completed, these projects will not just supply the 30% promised by the former President (Goodluck Jonathan), but could double Nigeria’s electricity generation.”
He identified the 1,000MW-capacity Enugu Coal Power Plant project, awarded to China’s HTG-Pacific Energy at the cost of $3.7 billion at the duration of 2013-2015, which never came to be.
Besides, the Bureau of public enterprise (BPE), listed four existing mines, including Okpara and Onyeama underground mines in Enugu; Okaba surface mine in Kogi; and Owukpa underground mine in Benue states, respectively, with more than 13 other underdeveloped coalfields.
Ehinola further argued that the exploitation of coal for electricity generation and the production of coal briquettes for domestic and industrial heating will bring a number of benefits including increased and more reliable electricity supply, lower-cost electrical energy, and expanded industrialisation of the economy.
Others are increased employment and human resources development, increased capacity utilization of existing industries, increased national income through taxes, reduced deforestation and prevention of desert encroachment in the northern parts of the country.
He added that the successful exploitation of the coal reserves will greatly complement Nigeria’s oil and gas sector.
However, the General Secretary, Nigerian Mining and Geoscience Society (NMGS), Dr. Akinade Olatunji, told The Guardian that many developed economies are not enthusiastic about supporting the use of coal for power generation in emerging economies, due to the environmental hazards.
Olatunji said: “While they are busy trying to reduce carbon footprints and the global level of CO2 occasioned by their legacy use of fossil fuels, it will make no sense supporting such projects elsewhere.
“However, that does not mean Nigeria should not pursue coal-to-power projects, but definitely we will not get funding from most of the Western-backed financial institutions for such a project. And if you ask me as an Environmental Geologist, I will rather we pursue renewable sources of power using hydro, solar and wind than coal-powered sources. The next level is to have a green economy.”
Asked if Nigeria could afford the tools to harness the potential in coal, Olatunji said being a global world, sourcing for technology would not be a problem.
“Coal usage for power was one of the very first sources of generating power. Technology is known and simple. The challenge is that if you must produce energy cleanly from coal, the technology required becomes more sophisticated and expensive, making the resulting power generated from the enterprise more expensive than that from gas for instance.”
He, however, hinted that smokeless coal is achievable provided there is funding to drive up the cost. “Companies like Dangote are already exploiting their coal fields, as they use it in their cement works for power generation. Since they are consuming their product, it’s easy for them to do the financing.”
He also admitted that there is some truth about Nigeria’s coal reserves being largely unexploited even after some blocks were sold to prospective miners, largely due to lack of funds.
“Nigerian banks will not lend such money because they are not conversant with that sector yet, so, funding the exploitation of such fields is a problem. And except you are getting funding from China and some other Asian countries, you will not get funding from Western-backed lending bodies, because they are moving away from coal.”
Recall that former Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, had accused the western powers of blocking Nigeria’s effort to improve its electricity output using coal.
She said: “We want to build a coal power plant because we are a country blessed with coal, yet we have a power problem. So it doesn’t take a genius to work out that it will make sense to build a coal power plant.
“However, we are being blocked from doing so, because it is not green. This is not fair because they have entire western industrialisation that was built on coal-fired energy.
“This is a competitive advantage that was used to develop Europe, yet now that Nigeria wants to do it, they say it’s not green, so we cannot.
“They suggest that we use solar and wind, which is more expensive. So yes, Africa must invest in its infrastructure, but we must also make sure that the playing field is level,” she said.
But the President, Geological Society of Africa, Prof. Gbenga Okunola, told The Guardian that the claim of western conspiracy against harnessing Nigeria’s coal resources cannot be substantiated, as coal-to-power is more of an economic and financial issue.
“Nobody has stopped any Nigerian company or foreign company from having access to exploring coal.
Personally, I have done exploration for about two companies. I don’t think if it’s viable, any western countries will want to conspire, at least to my knowledge. If you look at many countries today, they use coal as a form of energy. South Africa uses coal alone, even the USA is back to coal mining. But as I said, the environmentalists and those who are agitating for a green economy may have some grouses. But I don’t think anybody has been stopped or there is any western conspiracy against Nigerian coal. I think most of the challenges are economic and financial.
“In terms of harnessing our coal potential, the major problem about coal-to-power is not about the availability of resources; it’s about the tariff, and it’s about the economics of it.”
Also speaking, an economic expert, Kalu Aja, agreed that efforts should be made to harness the country’s coal reserves to boost the energy sector, saying this would have a ripple effect in job creation for the youths.
He said: “The debate is simple: green clean environment or economic output? For any nation to grow, she needs factories to manufacture and produce goods for consumption. Factories also create jobs, and jobs kill poverty. The industrial revolution started in Great Britain, and it was powered by coal, but Britain will phase out coal by 2025, yet Japan is building 22 new coal plants to replace power output lost by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“So if Japan could build 22 coal plants to drive growth, why not Nigeria? However, many hedge funds are now backing away from supporting projects, which they perceive are harmful to the environment. BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, has announced it will put sustainability at the heart of its investment decisions, translation. No more investment in crude oil and gas. Many banks and funds will follow this lead. So, unless Nigeria becomes like Japan that is able to fund her own coal plants, it’s a dream that won’t happen.”