Below is the excerpts of the interview the former Minister of Power, Professor Chinedu Nebo had with Thisday Newspapers correspondents; Charles Ajunwa and Ahamefula Ogbu.
Your record at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) as Vice Chancellor was so resounding. A lot of Nigerians expected you to replicate same feat at the Ministry of Power when you served as minister. Why was that not possible?
With regards to power, you know when I came to the Ministry of Power the entire power system in the country was in a transition because government had decided to privatise all the generating companies (Gencos) and all the distribution companies (Discos) and to retain only the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN). So, that period was not an easy one at all because that time of transition so many things were happening. There was so much unrest among the labour union members and so on. But in spite of that, we did a lot of innovations. We were able to get signed a policy for renewable energy in Nigeria and such a policy was put in place during the time I was minister. We also did the bill that made Nigerian Electricity Management Services Agency (NEMSA) a national agency of the country. In addition to that, we did quite a lot of things with regard renewable energy, solar power and so on, where we demonstrated using three towns- Shape, Walu and Durumi that people could use 24/7 power supply using only solar without being connected to the power grid. We really did quite a few things. We started Operation Light Up Rural Nigeria, but unfortunately, we were cut short. You know I was only there for two years and two months before our government was changed and then of course, I stopped being a minister. So, I would say that we didn’t have all the time in the world to do all those wonderful revolutionary power systems we wanted to set up for the country. But because of that when I left office, I felt I still owe the country and that was what led me into continuing searching for a way of solving energy crisis in Nigeria, and by the grace of God we have something to show for it now.
Can we know that thing you have to show for it?
I have been working with so many young people in different places right from before I even became Minister of Power. The first time was when I was even Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Enugu State University of Science and Technology. I had an ally and we were talking about big power station, I said no, let’s start with renewable and we did a lot of research. I had always believed, and I still believe, that we can generate electricity without fuel not necessarily using only gas or even solar or wind or hydro, but purely electromechanical means of sustained electricity generation. So, I had funded some people that are technologically savvy. They were talented. I notice them, fished them out and start working with them. But then when I became minister, there was a power group we started that I tried to encourage people in different places. So, I started working with them and soon after that, we were swept out of office. Of course, we continued the research. By the grace of God, we have invented a means of generating electricity using minimum fuel supply. What we have been able to do, is to build our own turbine system that incorporates an electro mechanical system, iterative system that multiplies power that is generated by a small engine. So, we have a small engine driving a large turbine. What we have succeeded in doing, is that we actually have 22.1 kilowatt engine driving a 250 kilowatt turbine using only the fuel of the 22.1 kilowatt engine. In other words, producing 10 times the power using the same amount of fuel as the small engine would use. We have been able to get enough equipment to measure the electricity output and we found out that we could generate over 200 kilowatts from a 22 kilowatt engine. That is almost 10 times. You can imagine the fuel savings! So, it’s just that we don’t have the resources. I invested substantially because the research is 100 per cent funded by me. So, I have received no money from anybody within the country or even outside. It was just recently that some people started showing interest but we still are yet to find investors. We have not publicised it, we are hoping that soon that we will do a public display of this machine then we will attract investors to come. So, what we have calculated is for this people using 500 kilowatts to 1,000 kilowatts generators, if they did a 10-hour shift every day we could save them N30-N50 million every year for each generator by the savings they get from fuel.
Have you patented it?
It’s patented, we have a Nigerian patent. I’m the leader of the group.
But is the federal government aware of this?
The government is aware, but I’m sorry that the government doesn’t seem to be interested in anything. It’s surprising! The government has an idea because we presented this to the Ministry of Science and Technology. You would have expected that somehow the ministry would say “Okay why don’t we fund this or the research through the Energy Commission or through any other commission or any other agency.” But there hasn’t been a single response from the government on that. But again, I have never believed that government can solve Nigeria’s power problems. It has to be solved by the private sector and much of the problems that we have in this country are seemingly intractable for government to solve. So, the private sector has to sit up and I believe solutions will come from the private sector.
What is the problem with the electricity architecture of the country?
The problem, first and foremost, people wonder whether the government has good intentions. You know after the unfortunate military interregnum when President Obasanjo came to power he started very aggressive programme and that was what brought the National Integrated Power Projects (NIPP) into limelight and funded it. Unfortunately, it was discontinued when President Yar’Adua took over, but later President Jonathan revived all of that. That was an aggressive way of giving Nigerians several thousands of more megawatts of electricity. But I have been crying from the first day that I took office as Minister of Power that Nigeria will never, I repeat never have energy or electricity supply sufficiency using the Main Grid. It cannot happen. The reason is very easily obvious – To give every part of Nigeria the transmission infrastructure that would eventually distil to distribution infrastructure needed for every community to get electricity in Nigeria will cost several trillions of naira. Electricity or power supply is not the only problem government has; government has to work with health, give road infrastructure, do educational infrastructure, aviation, environment and so on. So many babies that the government has and the government cannot put trillions of naira in transmission infrastructure with the same amount of money they would have used in building very formidable, I would say, transmission infrastructure. They can take electricity to the people where they need it by what you call direct distributed power. You go to a community build a small power plant, use distribution network to do it or embedded generation. You take small engines, small generators or turbines to communities, to institutions – whether it’s agriculture or business cluster or industrial cluster, you measure the power they need and give it to them. If they grow, you increase your capacity incrementally as growth comes. But when the country insists on doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time, it’s one of the Chinese definitions of insanity. You cannot be doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time. It doesn’t work! But that is what Nigeria has been doing and unfortunately, for the past few years not much has happened in the power sector. We are not generating anything more 4,000 megawatts till today. It’s horrible! It’s harrowing! Industries are folding up on a regular basis and we are pointing to government, to make the government look at power generation and distribution from another angle – Imbedded generation and distributed power. That is the way to go and then we need to capture renewable energy. Every part of Nigeria is amenable to renewable energy especially solar. Many parts are amenable to wind especially the coastal areas and some high wind velocity areas and a few are amenable to hydro power of different sizes. There are also even miniature hydro power plants that can be built easily with very little problem. But the government doesn’t seem to care about these things and it’s most unfortunate. And for us, these power turbines that we have built, we have done some tests and also realised that we can power the same turbine without a single drop of fuel by using compressed air and water. That is the next level we are going. So, while we are launching this one and as we get the resources for more research, we will be able to perfect it where it will be driven either by solar or by what we call aero hydro technology using compressed air and water to drive the same turbine that we are using small engines to drive now. When we do that, it means we can generate electricity anywhere in this country and give people the power. There is going to be industrial revolution based on our findings. In fact, an American friend of mine that I told about what we are doing said “This is disruptive technology”. It’s going to change the way power is generated in the whole world not just Nigeria. But as you speak, even engineers don’t understand this. They don’t believe it. They don’t know it’s a reality. That is why we decided to mount it, it’s now mounted where we are going to do the display and presentation to the country at Coal City University, Enugu, where I happen to be Pro-Chancellor of the Governing Council.
Still on the problems of electricity, what is wrong with the privatisation policy of the federal government?
I don’t think anything is wrong. It’s just that governments appear to be too much in a hurry. It’s the greatest or the biggest privatisation ever done in history with regards to power and I would have thought government would have done that incrementally. Sell a few Discos, not just outright sale because government still retains 40 per cent in the Discos and maybe 10 per cent or so in the Gencos. But they should have done that in piecemeal so that you learn as it matures, but this one fell-swoop privatisation took everybody by storm and some of those who bought the companies were not ready. They claimed to have what they didn’t have. They said they had creditworthiness, many of them didn’t. They said that they had resources, many of them didn’t. Some said they have technical experts and partners, many of them didn’t. That is why the government is still subsidising them underground to make sure that everything is afloat otherwise the entire system would collapse. But I tell you that the thought and the principle is correct. It’s just that we should have taken these things stepwise or done that incrementally and if we were to do it completely the way it was done, I think a lot greater level of due diligence should have been done before privatising.
Is there any way you can interface this new technology that you are on now with the present turbine system that Nigeria has invested so many billions of dollars on?
Right now, what these turbines that Nigeria has built many of them especially the NIPP ones have not been commissioned. Most of them were almost essentially completed during the President Jonathan administration, but the current administration, because of some level of lackadaisical attitude doesn’t seem to be interested in pushing everything forward in making sure because these people still need some kind of support. You don’t give birth to a child and the child becomes independent the very first day. You keep allowing the child to learn how to crawl and then how to walk and then how to run eventually. That has not happened. It didn’t take much time before we left the office. We are still in the learning process. But with our own technology, the beauty of it is we can design a one-megawatt generator that can be driven by only a 50-100 kilowatt engine or when we now have the resources to perfect the aero hydro technology driven by water and compressed air. We take it to anywhere even in the cities where there is constant power failure, we can sell power directly to the Discos and that is one good thing this government has tried to do by encouraging more people if you can generate up to two megawatts you are free to sell your power if you have a license. So, I believe if you look at the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), it should be able to grant licences, so, we can sell directly or do them in smaller bits of 500 kilowatts and so on. Go to a Disco and tell a Disco, this is a high-priced area, these people need power and they are only getting six hours a day let’s give you 24/7 power and we will sell it to you at the same price or slightly discount it from what you are getting from Gencos. So, it’s a win-win situation for everybody. People get power 24/7, Discos make their money and we make our money. You know, what really pains me is one day a big going concern- General Electric, Siemens or even Mikano – any of them can come and buy our licence and start producing and we would lose the base.
We have no support from anybody, Nigerians are not interested. But it’s horrible, nobody wants to do research. How can you think of me a public servant funding research? It’s not done anywhere! But we have to do it because I passionately believed in this, even mortgaging asset that I have had for more than 30 years in order to make sure that this works. Thankfully, by the grace of God, we are at the verge of a new dawn. I believe we are very close to industrial revolution because with this system anywhere you want to site your industry, anywhere you want to build an estate, anywhere you want to do agricultural processing you get a machine like this. You don’t need to be connected to the National Grid and you would get power 24/7.
Don’t you think politics in the Nigerian system can negatively affect what you are doing?
Certainly, you know one of the greatest problems in our land is politicising everything. It’s most unfortunate. Yes, but it could be that politics could also hamper this. For instance, people would say, how come it’s coming from this part of the country? We are not going to support it. Or people can say well, if this thing goes on it’s a 100 per cent Nigerian project. All of us who are part of this are Nigerians. So, this is a Nigerian technology there wouldn’t be any opportunity for anybody to corruptly enrich themselves. Look at Nigeria, importing finished petroleum products till today. How can a country like Nigeria be importing fuel? Ghana wants to produce more electricity, why? They want to sell it to Nigeria. They buy gas from us, produce electricity and sell to us because we can’t even produce our own with the gas we have in quantum. We have the seventh or eighth largest gas reserve in the whole world, what are we doing with it? Nothing! So, I believe that politics could affect it. We need a government that is proactive, a government that is competent and a government that is technologically savvy, that would see the opportunities in this kind of thing. Can you imagine that for instance, one big international firm comes and buys this licence or when they frustrate us as they tried to frustrate many people and we choose to go outside and manufacture it, people are now going to start importing it into Nigeria. Who makes all the money? The international companies. Now, we have an opportunity to do it in Nigeria, use our currency, have the industry, have tens of thousands of engineers working. Nobody is listening. They don’t give a damn about these things. You can see how it hurts to know that here is an opportunity of a lifetime, of a Nigerian technology to change the way electricity is generated for the whole world and nobody gives a damn.
Talking about research, what has happened to the coal we have in abundance in the country?
Well, very thankfully, coal is now being mined in the country and we are hoping that some of it would be used for electricity generation. Thankfully, Zuma mines in Kogi and Dangote mines also in Kogi, while Mill House Energy Resources mines in Enugu.
And some of these are great things that the previous administration did by encouraging people to start utilising or exploiting the coal resources we have in abundance in Nigeria. We are quite thankful that very soon we are going to have people using coal to generate electricity in Nigeria. World Bank will complain and say why are you using coal, it’s not clean. We have clean coal technology now that is as clean as anything you can imagine. So, I don’t think there is any problem with that. They developed their own countries using coal and it’s our turn to develop and they are telling us we can’t do that, and I think it’s not right. They have no moral justification where you have most of those so-called free world still using coal today and then they are telling Africa you can’t do what we are doing because you are going to pollute the world. They have already polluted the world. I don’t think what we are doing is going to pollute the world if we use the best technology of clean coal.
What component of your invention is manufactured in Nigeria?
Well, this is one of our problems and that is why we want to really invite investors who care because apart from the design that we have done which is really very expensive for us much of the other components we use we have to import. For instance, nobody produces the kind of transformers we need. There are some now in Lagos being produced and we are happy about that but most of these are produced by foreigners. The little engines that we use to drive the turbines that we manufactured we can source locally, the components we use in manufacturing the turbines. So much of it we can do local but there are components that we need like electric motors, engines, alternators, and others we still have to import. But that is part of the reason we will want to start manufacturing those things in Nigeria and it doesn’t cost an arm and a foot. If the Bank of Industry were to bankroll an industry like that, we start producing transformers. We start producing small electric motors and some of the components that we need to get our turbines designed and built, and I think that will be in the best interest of Nigeria.
As former Minister of Power, what do you think would be a quick fix to the problems of power in Nigeria?
Well, there aren’t easy quick fixes. Let me just give an illustration, Azura Power in Edo State has come on stream. How many years did it take to conceive that idea, to do the design, to market the design, then to have financial closures, get buy-in from international organisations, get the requisite bank guarantees? Now secure the soft loans and then begin to do the EPC, manufacturing of the components and so on. At the end of the year, you find out it needs a minimum of four to six years to get 100 or 200 megawatts in place. Six years, average five years my brothers! How do you wait for that? We don’t wait, every day we are producing children, everyday people are streaming from villages and coming to the cities. You don’t wait for five years. For our system if we have everything we need same 200 megawatts we can produce in a year easily and we can multiply this in so many places so that with this kind of system we have now, if we had the kind of investment people are talking about. For instance, for our own one megawatt, we could produce conveniently one megawatt of power with about 300,000 to 350,000 Dollars. A typical one megawatt deployed of these big engines is about $1.2 million. So, what we are doing would cost one third of the typical machines out there and save 50-70 per cent of the fuel. So, what we have indeed is disruptive technology but nobody seems to care.
Is the new technology environmentally friendly?
Yes, it’s environmentally friendly because instead of generating 250-kilowatt level distortion of emission you only generate 22 kilowatts. But then when we now shift completely to renewable energy without pollution, aero hydro it would be zero pollution. The capacity is there, the knowledge is there, the expertise is there. Why isn’t anybody interested? Why?
Don’t you see dealers in generating sets wanting to squeeze the life out of this your idea?
Well, I’m sorry to say it that we really are in danger because it would put every one of them out of business. Nobody would see a machine that saves 70 per cent or more of fuel consumption and then abandon it and go for anything less unless they are government workers who would go for expensive one because you can steal more money from the more expensive ones. That is the only thing. I don’t think we are 100 per cent safe, it’s just that God is protecting us, and I do know that some of them will try to steal the technology. And we have a patent at least for this country, we are going to secure patent from some other countries especially US and a couple of countries in Europe. But right now, I can assure you that they are not going to find it funny. The first time we started doing it, now they think it’s impossible, we have demonstrated it. The day we switched on our first test there was an uproarious clapping of hands and so on. This small thing driving this big turbine, producing all this electricity! People couldn’t believe it. People are going to see that it’s possible, but again it’s a danger to our own oil because we better find ways of utilising oil money to industrialise the entire country or even investing that money in this technology because eventually, this technology can also go into driving bigger machines because if it can drive a turbine it can also drive large engines in other places. So, this is going to go places by the grace of God. Like I said, all of us are Nigerian engineers. Nigerian engineers are not daft. It’s just that nobody is encouraging them. They go abroad, and they perform, they do wonders in other climes, but in their own land, nobody will give them the enabling environment to even transform our own land.