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Renewable Energy Potentialsfor Rural Development

By Patience Chat Moses

As the world evolves, trends in transition to other sources of energy are on the increase. Developed and developing countries are making huge investments in Renewable Energy (RE) as alternative to fossil fuels. In the midst of these, it is important not to leave rural areas out as cities seem to be the focus on energy transition. In rural communities around the world, access to reliable and affordable energy is often limited, hindering economic development, education, healthcare, and overall quality of life. However, RE holds great development potential for rural communities. Renewable energy (RE) is being championed as a potentially significant new source of jobs and rural growth in developed and developing countries, and it has become a means of addressing environmental and energy security concerns. Already, governments of most countries are following the trend by investing large amounts of funds to support RE development and are requiring significant quantities of it to be sold by energy providers.

A report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), on linking the use of renewables to rural development, the results of a two-year study of the impact of RE on rural development drawing on case studies in 16 regions across Europe and North America, found that while RE indeed represents an opportunity for stimulating economic growth in hosting communities, it also requires a complex and flexible policy framework and a long-term strategy. Expectedly, RE is not going to create a lot of jobs, but rather some additional employment opportunities in rural areas. According to the report, making a positive connection between RE development and local economic growth will require more coherent strategies, the right set of local conditions, and a place-based approach to deployment.

What Renewable Energy has for Rural Areas
The global deployment of renewable energy has taken off. The renewable energy electricity sector is said to have grown by 26% between 2005 and 2010 and is still growing. Today it provides about 20% of the world’s power. Hydroelectric power generates 84% of the world’s renewable electricity, while the other newer renewable energy electricity technologies have also grown rapidly, doubling their production between 2005 and 2010. Renewable energy sources present a promising solution to many challenges facing rural areas in African countries especially Nigeria. It offers a sustainable and environmentally friendly way to meet the energy needs of rural areas. One of the key potentials of renewable energy for rural development lies in its ability to provide access to electricity in areas where traditional grid infrastructure is either non-existent or unreliable.

Renewable energy can reduce the “fuel poverty” that can be a common feature of remote regions, by allowing isolated communities to produce their energy instead of importing expensive conventional fuels. Technologies such as solar panels, small wind turbines, and micro-hydro systems can be deployed to generate electricity locally, reducing dependence on centralized power grids. Solar energy, in particular, holds great promise for rural electrification. The Rural Electrification Agency (REA) in Nigeria for instance, has made this a priority.

In 2022 for instance, REA initiated the implementation of a 2.5 MW solar hybrid power project at the Nigeria Defence Academy’s (NDA) Afaka Campus in Kaduna, Nigeria, as part of the Energizing Education Programme (EEP) phase two. The project which was funded by the World Bank and the Federal Government was completed within 12 months. The project provided a 2.5 MW solar hybrid power plant, streetlights in the school environment, rehabilitation of the distribution network, a renewable workshop/training centre, and a one-year operations and maintenance of the power plant as well as hands-on practical training and experience in the design and construction of power systems for 20 female Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) students.
Renewable energy has the potential of improving access to essential health care facilities. Solar-powered medical clinics can refrigerate vaccines, power diagnostic equipment, and provide lighting for surgeries, improving healthcare delivery in remote areas. Renewable energy can also be deployed in rural areas to enhance food production. In 2022, REA launched the Energizing Agriculture Programme (EAP), Minigrid Solution for Rural Operators. With the scheme, REA was able to install solar mini-grids in agrarian communities to improve food security and agricultural productivity. The mini-grids are installed in communities with potential for productive use, such as Rice milling hubs, Community farming areas, Border areas and Agro-processing businesses.

The falling costs of solar panels, coupled with advancements in battery storage technology, have made solar power increasingly affordable and accessible. Solar energy systems can be installed on individual homes, community buildings, or as part of mini-grids, providing reliable electricity for lighting, cooking, heating, and powering small appliances. Renewable energy can also drive economic development in rural areas by creating new job opportunities and supporting local industries. The installation, operation, and maintenance of renewable energy systems require skilled labour, providing employment opportunities for local residents.

Additionally, the development of renewable energy projects can stimulate economic activity in related industries, such as manufacturing, construction, and services. Renewable energy can create valuable job opportunities for people in regions with few employment opportunities. Most jobs to be created are in operating and maintaining the installations.

Some of these jobs pay high salaries and can have an important impact on the long-term sustainability of rural communities. Citizens of rural communities can get jobs in construction, manufacturing, specialised services, and also rural activities such as farming, and forestry work chain.

Renewable energy deployment can also increase the tax base in hosting rural communities and generate extra income for land owners and land-based activities. Developers have to pay taxes to the hosting community. Some of these taxes are paid at as building permits; others are paid on a yearly basis and are related to the businesses’ turn over. Local taxes provide revenue for the hosting community and can have a dramatic impact on service delivery. These tax revenues have increased the availability of key public services such as schools, healthcare facilities, road network etc. Renewable energy in rural areas can also generate extra income for land owners, and can be integrated with specific productive processes. Furthermore, renewable energy can improve access to essential services such as education. Solar-powered schools can ensure that students have access to lighting for studying, computers for learning, and other educational resources.
Renewable energy has potential in providing clean, sustainable energy solutions to healthcare facilities in rural communities. The lack of sufficient and reliable power is jeopardizing the well-being of hundreds of millions of people, especially women and children, who often bear the brunt of inadequate primary healthcare services. In addition to its direct benefits, renewable energy can also contribute to environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation. By replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, rural communities can reduce their carbon footprint and mitigate the impacts of climate change. This is particularly important for rural communities that are often disproportionately affected by the adverse effects of climate change, such as droughts, floods, and extreme weather events.

Renewable energy can also provide an avenue for capacity building and community empowerment. As actors become more specialised and accumulate skills in the new industry, their capacity to learn and innovate is enhanced. Several rural regions have developed specific institutions, organisms, and authorities to deal with RE deployment in reaction to large investment and top-down national policies.

REA and Renewable Energy Projects in Nigeria
The Rural Electrification Agency (REA) is the Implementing Agency of the Federal Government of Nigeria under the Federal Ministry of Power, tasked with the electrification of unserved and underserved communities to catalyse economic growth and improve the quality of life for Nigerians. The Agency was established under part IX, Sections 88- 89 of the Electric Power Sector Reform Act (EPSRA), 2005. The Rural Electrification Agency (REA) in Nigeria has been able to complete several renewable energy projects. In November 2023, REA commissioned Nigeria’s first connected solar hybrid mini grid in Toto, Nasarawa State.

Another 67.32KW Solar Hybrid Mini Grid was constructed at Oloibiri, commissioned on June 2, 2020, in Bayelsa State and another 67.32KW Solar Hybrid Mini Grid at Akipelai, commissioned also on June 2, 2020. In Niger state, a 64kW Solar Hybrid Mini Grid at Rokota was also completed to provide off-grid lightening solutions. Improving access to electricity within the healthcare sector is a strategic priority for the Rural Electrification Agency (REA). In pursuit of this objective, the REA successfully deployed 100 Containerized Solar Hybrid Systems (50kW each) across 100 healthcare centres in Nigeria. This landmark achievement is part of the World Bank-funded Nigeria Electrification Project (NEP), aimed at providing clean, sustainable energy solutions to healthcare facilities.

Putting Renewable Energy to Work in Rural Areas
To fully realize the potential of renewable energy for rural development, policymakers and stakeholders must work together to overcome existing barriers. This includes addressing financing challenges, building technical capacity, and creating enabling policy frameworks. By investing in renewable energy solutions, we can empower rural communities, improve their quality of life, and build a more sustainable future for all. Renewable energy policy must do more to take into account the demand for more active participation by rural dwellers. Strategic energy models should be embedded in the local economic development strategy so that it reflects local potentials and needs.

Furthermore, RE should be channelled towards larger supply chains within rural economies, such as agriculture, forestry, traditional manufacturing and green tourism. Another step to enhance RE facilities in rural areas is to avoid imposing types of RE on areas that are not suited to them. For example, wind power is only appropriate in certain places – more care is needed to identify those places rather than adopting policies that somewhat arbitrarily spread RE projects across national landscapes.

Also, there should be a focus on relatively mature technologies such as heat from biomass, small-scale hydro and wind. These proven technologies are not likely to experience big jumps in technology that can make recently completed plants instantly obsolete. Ensure local social acceptance by ensuring clear benefits to local communities and engaging them in the process; this is crucial, as local opposition can slow construction and may increase the difficulty of subsequent efforts to introduce RE projects.

There are no shortcuts to rural development. Policy makers should always take into account the overall cost of energy, and implement the least expensive energy solution that can also satisfy carbon emission reduction requirements. The importance of renewables in rural development cannot be overemphasized, there is a need to make rural areas a priority. The potential of renewable energy for rural development is immense and transformative. By leveraging sustainable energy sources such as solar, wind, and biomass, rural communities can achieve significant socio-economic growth, improve quality of life, and foster environmental sustainability. The adoption of renewable energy not only reduces dependence on fossil fuels but also creates local job opportunities, enhances education and healthcare services, and promotes self-sufficiency. As governments, NGOs, and private sectors collaborate to overcome financial and logistical barriers, the vision of empowered and resilient rural communities can become a reality. The journey towards a sustainable future is a collective effort, and embracing renewable energy is a crucial step in ensuring inclusive and equitable development for all.

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