Thursday, 11 April 2024 04:43

Adelabu and power management - Abimbola Adelakun

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Minister of Power, Adebayo Adelabu, must have smarted from the embarrassing fallout his comments about Nigerians and their habits of energy efficiency generated. While addressing the public last Thursday, he noted how Nigerians waste energy by keeping their freezers and air conditioners running even when not at home. He said the habit of energy preservation eludes us because energy is too cheap in our part of the world.

The media quotes him as saying, “A lot of people will come back from work, they want to have dinner, or they want to see their colleagues down the road, they switch on the AC for the room to be cooling before they come back. Some people will be going to work in the morning, a freezer that you left on for days, they will still leave it on when all the items in the freezer are frozen and 5, 6, 8 hours of their absence will not make it to defreeze, they will still leave it to be consuming power just because we are not paying enough. We have all been overseas before; we know how conscious the power consumers are about electricity consumption.”

If I had been at that gathering, I would have asked Adelabu how frequently he turns off the refrigerator in his houses in Ibadan, Abuja, and elsewhere, to preserve energy. Also, does he wait until he starts sweating into the folds of his agbada before he turns on the air-conditioning system? In trying to clarify the broader context in which the minister addressed the public, former media aide Tolu Ogunlesi noted that the manner in which people ran with the “freezer” gaffe was “sad” and “unfortunate” because it distracted from the main points of the public address. Actually, what is really sad and unfortunate here is that the minister chose to be pedestrian. He walked into it.

Unlike his thought clarifier, I do not take the quoted statement as a case of wrong choices of examples; I see it as the extent to which he understands energy issues as they play out in mundane situations. In case Adelabu has not noticed, appliances like refrigerator/freezer are not designed to be unplugged. As long as a home (or office) is occupied, the refrigerator works itself to its death.

Three crucial issues stood out from his criticism of Nigerians’ energy consumption habits. One, his selection of appliances—freezer and air-conditioning—are interesting for far more reasons than why he chose them. In 2013, an American guy called Todd Moss (a vice president and senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development), bought a refrigerator. As he closely looked at the efficiency tag (that yellow paper appended on new refrigerating sets), he noticed that the single appliance would consume 459 kWh annually. He ran the figures and realised that that single refrigerating unit would gulp more electricity than most people in African countries get to use in a whole year. Those six countries? Ethiopia, Tanzania, Liberia, Kenya, Ghana, and of course, Nigeria.

The chart he created comparing energy use figures and inequality of access has been reproduced and circulated multiple times to illustrate the reality of energy inequity. If there is one luxury that people in countries like Nigeria cannot be said to have, it is energy supply. As of 2020, electricity consumption for air conditioning accounted for about 19 per cent (roughly 254 billion kiloWh) of electricity consumption in US homes. It takes about 2,365 kWh of electricity per year to cool an average home in the USA.

So, when the Nigerian power minister suggests we overuse electricity, with whom exactly was he comparing us? Even Ghana where roughly 70 per cent of households have access to electricity does not consume anything close to what mere air-conditioning and refrigerating sets in countries like the US gulp. As of 2020, Americans reportedly consume an annual average energy of 10,700 kWh per hour, compared to the Nigerian average of 161 kWh. How can people so lacking be considered irresponsible users?

Second, our leaders should understand that contrary to the assumption that the scarcity of resources is due to overconsumption, we are—by almost every measure—a vastly under-resourced people. We lack certain infrastructure like energy, not because we are wasteful, but simply because we have never had enough. Nigeria is a place where people have to decide whether a visitor is worth their turning on their generator (so as to turn on the fan) or endure the sweltering heat together. Countries where they supply energy 24/7 never need to worry about such things. If Nigerians cannot similarly take energy supply for granted, it is not because their freezers never defrost but because their energy supplies are woefully inadequate.

How many households in Nigeria even have freezers and air-conditioning units? According to Ogunlesi, there are 12 million electricity customers (including both households and businesses) in Nigeria. Relative to our purported population, that number is shockingly meagre. Even if Nigeria’s population were a mere 150 million  (as against the 200 million plus which official figures frequently tout) and there is an average of seven people per household, it is still not enough. Twelve million customers simply means far too many households and businesses are unconnected to official energy supply. It is either that millions of people stay in the dark or Nigeria is preponderantly powered by generators. Either way, we have a challenge that will not be resolved by asking people to deny themselves certain basic comforts in the name of energy conservation. For a developing society like Nigeria that needs all the energy it can get to grow, preaching conservation can easily become counterproductive.

Third, none of the above is to be construed as discounting the necessity of energy preservation. While I will readily agree that conservation is essential, I also urge caution when comparing our energy management practices with societies that, comparatively, have excess supplies. When those societies nudge themselves towards preservation, they are not coming from a place of perpetual lack like Nigeria. If there is another reason that Nigerians have not cultivated the ethic of energy preservation, it is also because we tend not to see the link between the energy supplied to us and what we are billed for it. There is no time in my Nigerian life that I do not recall people complaining that even though they do not get “light,” but they still receive bills from the energy company and which they have to pay.

There is a local radio show that I listen to some mornings. Officials from an energy company come on the show and take questions. Many times, when a customer phones in, it is to vent over being billed for services denied. What do you think people like that would do the very moment that light comes on? They will use it with carefree abandon. People like that come to believe that they would be inordinately billed whether they use up the energy (whenever it is supplied) or not, and so they use it so they can justify what they pay for it.

Finally, we also cannot presume that the entire responsibility of energy management lies with individual Nigerians monitoring their energy usage by turning off their freezers as soon as the contents are frosted or waiting until their skins start cooking in the afternoon heat before they turn on their air-conditioning systems. Those habits are ultimately limited in their effects without larger structural enablement. For instance, the kind of appliances we use (and their age) also go a long way in facilitating energy preservation. Advanced societies constantly tweak technology to ensure that newer models of those appliances consume less energy. You can only export some of these products to their countries if those devices meet their set bar for energy-saving specifications.



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