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Prof. Lawrence I.N. Ezemonye is the Director of the National Centre for Energy and Environment, Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN), University of Benin. The centre is reputed for research into biomass energy production and technology transfer. In this interview with PATRICK OCHOGA, he advocates the documentation of the elaborate studies on surface water for hydro-power generation to woo prospective investors, and says that if fully utilised, it will address the seeming intractable energy challenge in the country.

As one of the recognised research centres in the Niger Delta region, can give us a brief background into the activities of the Centre?

The National Centre For Energy and Environment (NCEE) is an agency of the Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN) established in March 2009. It has the mandate of reorganising, conducting research and development programmes in the area of bio-energy and the environment. It is one of the six centres of Energy Commission that has the energy component to truly exercise its mandate. The objective of the centre is, in consonance of the cardinal principles guiding the establishment, to develop the conceptual and operational policy framework for sustainable biomass energy production and technology transfer.

We understand that the centre has the task of providing sustainable renewable energy sources through research.

Yes, the policy thrust of the centre is to engage and facilitate cutting-edge research and development activities in bio-energy production and environmental management supported by technology transfer. As a matter of fact, we emphasise technology transfer. The initial statement of the centre is that the centre shall promote sustainable renewable energy sources through research and development initiatives.  At the moment, the centre is operating R3D platform, but the modern trend is that you go beyond research and development to demonstration and, finally, to deployment. The research aspect is purely an academic thing, which is also in addition with development as it affects designs, but demonstration is the first proto-type of the outcome of research and development, while deployment is the final stage when it is commercialised or patented and made available to the end user. And that is the stage we are in this centre. We have successfully been able to go through research and development programme, the area of concerns to us now is the deployment of some of our research and development (R&D) programme, which is an area of concern even at the national level because we cannot do it all alone. We need private investors to commercialise the patented products and that is the area we involving the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement.

At this point, I want to say that the Energy Commission of Nigeria has entered into agreement with private investors to ensure the outputs from each research centre are not only patented but commercialised.  Since the inception of the centre, the centre has been assiduously working to attain its mandate to carry out these functions using specific model, and one model that is unique to our centre is the thematic group model. It is a research group system where a specific assignment is given to carry out the R & D requirement and demonstrate it. We, like every other establishment, have a research team, administration, finance, laboratory. The organogram is such that you have at the apex the ECN, followed by the Governing Board of the Centre with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Benin (UNIBEN) as the chairman of the Board. Also on the Board are the representatives of the Ministry of Mines and Steel and the Director of the Energy Commission. It is  important also to say that we collaborate with the Faculty of Engineering, Faculty of Agriculture, and that of Physical Sciences and these faculties have representatives on the Board.

You just made mention about the output of the centre; in specific terms, what do that mean?

The output of the centre is the result of the R&D activities of the centre. I want to say, at this point, that it might be interesting to let you know the thematic groups we have, and from there we can relate it to the output that are associated with the thematic group. We have a group that is solely responsible for environmental documentation and remediation programme. That particular group has done a documentation of oil spill with the Niger Delta and also done a documentation of degraded areas of Edo State.

We have a group that works on bio-fuel research and development; this particular group in the first instance has provided a documentation of the fixed stock efficiency yield for bio-fuel production. As a matter of fact, it is charged with the responsibility of evaluating the yield of some materials that we use for bio-fuel production, such the Jathropa seed, cast oil seed and the melon seed. What they are doing in essence is to also look at the pathway to create efficiency and increase the yield and also reduce the quantity of input. There is another group that is into bio-mass research and this group has been working on the production ethanol from pellets of pineapple, maize, orange peelings, and plantain. What they are actually working on are that waste products of these materials and we have documented the various percentage of yield.

A typical example is the ripe and unripe plantain pellets. The pellets of ripe plantain have more ethanol yield that the unripe, so we quantified them and are working on it. We have a bio-gas production unit and the agricultural/animal waste unit. The first they did was to do a survey in Edo/Delta states on the potential of agricultural residues in the production of bio-gas, which has also been documented. We have also been producing bio-gas using water hyacinth.

What we did in this case was to do a pre-treatment of the hyacinth because what we found is that the ones in the wild normally have so much fibre in them and they are recalcitrant; so they require more energy to break them down. And because the yield is not encouraging, we had to domesticate them in the laboratory and give them more nutrients and reduce the fibre and we found out that the wild types have more nutrients. Because they can be broken down easily by the micro-organism, it is possible to use the water hyacinth in our rivers to produce bio-gas for rural communities. We also have the waste to energy group; that group has been looking at the possibility of using rubber seeds to produce bio-diesel. It has also done a study of rubber biomass evaluation in the Niger Delta ecological zone and this has been documented in the centre. We have solar wind thematic project group with a hybrid that powers this office when we have power failure.

We also have solar water distiller unit that is powered by solar concentrator. We also have the environmental forensic group driven by the staff of the centre and it has worked on over 50 chemicals that are discharged into an environment – looking at their toxic effect on both man and the environment, and this is very essential for the federal government in the mapping and development of standard. We have also worked on a chemical for the coating of ship and we did that study in the Niger Delta harbour.  We found a large quantity in our water and even their derivative which is also found in our periwinkles, and we observed that it is capable of elevating the testosterone level of the periwinkle which means it is capable of changing its sex. In other words, you can come to the water body over a given period and find only male or female and the result of that is that it will affect reproduction and, over time, the organism will become threatened, endangered and go extinct.

We have done a proposal to the Maritime Organisation of Nigeria to extend these studies to other natural harbours; it is an area of concern to us. Most of these thematic groups are targeted towards government intervention, implementations, policy and community development, which are primary requirements of developmental stride of any given government. We have an underground water survey independent of what the Energy ministry is doing to compliment their effort because we found out that in Edo State people just do their borehole indiscriminately without recourse to stated guidelines or permit. By the time we are done with the underground studies of water in Edo State, we should be able to give a clear picture of underground pollution and their sources. We are also looking at the production of bio-fuel through algae, and it will interest you to know that this centre was selected to be part of the pilot programme, using algae. Another output of the centre is the eco-friendly generator which is solar-driven. We have started the local production of cell panels and we intend to develop it.

In other climes, we see all sorts of alternatives to energy generation and distribution; why has it been a major challenge here in Nigeria?

Renewables are not just bio-oriented renewables; they include the hydro  renewable energy that could come from the biological system like plants, organisms and bio-fuel. If you listened to the minster of power (Dr Barth Nnaji) recently in his presentation, he was emphatic on the need to restore to full capacity the hydro-power stations in the country. The reason is this: in advanced countries like Canada, we found out that almost 70 percent of the energy is from hydro and they have done it in such a way that it is now sustainable. In the Nigerian scenario,  what we  have to do is to ensure that the existing ones are still working at full capacity. What it means, therefore, is maintenance, recapitalisation and the use of new techniques. In Canada we saw the kinetic turbine system which is new and effective. At the national level, we need to do elaborate studies on the potentialities of our surface water for hydro-power generation, and it should be documented to be used to woo investors. And if we have that already, it should be made public. We should also look at other possibilitities of surface water in the country that can provide sources for hydro-power and I strongly believe that the local government(s) should be involved in hydro-power generation, because when you talk about power supply and demand and the area of deficiency we should also look at those in rural areas who are off-grid.  So the local government areas should embrace the principles of renewable.

The cottage arrangement in India is a beautiful scenario for emulation because they have patented it for rural communities, they are trained even in the maintenance of their solar appliances that someone with basic knowledge can handle, and that is part of the participation strategy they used to get the locals involved. Like Energy Commission is always advocating and I followed suit: that as far as we are concerned, the energy need scenario is what Nigeria should employ and that is what exactly the minister talked about – the use of coal, hydro, gas and fossil. At this point,  I must say that we have received a lot of impetus from our Director-General who incidentally is the Special Adviser to the President on Energy who established the centre. And it has ensured that the centre is properly equipped with support and guardiance. Also,  the board chairman, Professor Oshodin, has given us enormous support beyond our imagination, with enabling environment to work and ensure that we don't derail from our mandate.

What would you say have been the challenges since the establishment of the Centre in 2009?

Like every centre, we are bound to have challenges because we have tried to downplay our weaknesses and try to optimise our areas of strength. It is the same way we refused to give prominence to our challenges; rather we try to ensure that we have effectively used the resources that we have to achieve our mandate. Every research centre in Nigeria has funding problems because some of the outputs we have cannot easily be up scaled and, therefore, cannot be deployed, and you need a lot of funds to do that. We also have a challenge which is not peculiar to my centre: the interface between the industry and the research institutions seem to be widening; and I think at this point I need to commend the activities of the Bank of Industry (BoI). In other climes, industry gives subvention to research centres to solve problems for them. Their researches are funded by private institutions. Here, we have been able to solve that problem because, just recently, we entered into collaboration with Simens based on mutual benefit and we are going to focus on the power system and renewable. These are all an attempt to bring in public participation to the centre.

What is your impression of the attitude of government towards research in Nigeria?

Well, from my observation I am beginning to see that government is disposed towards research. It will interest you to know that when we started in 2009, the very first workshop we had was sponsored by the government of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole; since then,  we have entered into different collaborations with various ministries. We started with a waste segregation programme in the University of Benin, and I don't know which University is doing that in Nigeria,  and we are working in close collaboration with Edo State  Ministry of Environment, and they gave us a piece of land at Oluku for our sorting programme. The ministries in Edo State have desk officers who are working with us on matters of renewable energy. Government is beginning to see the need and Edo State government has interacted with us; same for Delta State.