Could Nigeria’s thriving telecoms industry help close the energy access gap?
By Sherisse Alexander, Chief Business Officer, WATT Renewable Corporation
Today, more Nigerians have access to telecoms than they do a reliable source of power. While there are only 27 million people in Nigeria without access to telecoms, there are around 85 million people that do not have access to a reliable source of electricity, according to the World Bank.
With the Nigerian Communications Commission saying it “will not rest on its oars” until everyone has access, the telecoms gap is closing at a good pace. Indeed, over the last five years the deployment of third and fourth generation towers in Nigeria has grown by 73.2 percent substantially driven by ever-increasing demand for high-speed connectivity from Nigerian telecom consumers. Telecoms service providers including Globacom and 9Mobile have focused on extending and modernizing their service to 4G-LTE Advanced but as of September 2022, 5G also became available for the first time.
The introduction of 5G to Nigeria makes it one of only a handful of African countries to benefit from the lower latency, higher capacity, and increased bandwidth that 5G provides. MTN, Mafab Communications and Airtel – who were all early investors in the 5G spectrum – now provide coverage to most of Nigeria’s major cities, including Lagos, Kano, and Abuja. MTN is targeting 40% 5G penetration by 2025 with competitors expected to reveal their own 5G roll-out plans soon.
At a minimum, if the Nigerian telecoms industry continues to invest and build telecoms infrastructure at the same rate as the past five years, we could expect to see a further 36,000 towers built to 2028. Although with the recent introduction of 5G, this figure could be much higher still.
Powering telecoms expansion with renewable energy
Every tower will require power, but the sector’s usual go-to fuel source – diesel – has soared in price recently – with 2022 seeing a 184% increase in price in just twelve months according to the National Bureau of Statistics. And the trend has continued into 2023, with supply chain issues and the invasion of Ukraine continuing to have a global impact on fuel prices.
As such, powering telecoms operations with solar has become a highly attractive option. A solar storage solution that combines solar PV panels with battery storage and intelligent AI-enabled remote monitoring provides a reliable, affordable, renewable power source that is ideal for supporting the telecoms industry’s expansion and modernization and sustainability plans.
In fact, last year, WATT saved one business almost $3 million USD in fuel costs and 4,430 MT of carbon dioxide by installing a solar storage solution. Evidence points to a noticeable increase in tower uptime too – with continuous remote monitoring and proactive maintenance, tower operators can get ahead of potential outages.
The positive economic impact of improved connectivity is well documented – with a 10%
increase in mobile adoption increasing GDP by 0.5% to 1.2% on average, and wellness benefits are also well evidenced. Yet for all the good that better mobile connectivity brings, millions of Nigerians still suffer from poor access to electricity. So, what if the rapid growth of the telecoms industry could have a positive impact on both mobile connectivity and electricity access?
Closing the energy access gap with a telecoms tower’s solar power
As with most commercial power solutions, an element of redundancy is typically built into any tower power solution to allow for future growth and higher-power technology enhancements, and to protect against outage. In times past this would have been a back-up diesel generator, however with modern hybrid solar installations it comes in the form of battery storage. This means that most solar-powered communications towers have as much as 2-3kW of redundant power available which can be offered to the surrounding community at a subsidized rate.
Depending on the needs of the community, the power could be used to create economic benefits by extending trading hours or creating new enterprises, or support the delivery of healthcare, digital banking or education. In Kano State, the residual solar power from one of WATT’s hybrid solar storage power solutions is being used to electrify a market, supporting a variety of small traders, while at another tower the power is used to offer small device charging.
While these are small wins, the aggregated impact of this action by the telecoms industry could be huge. If every new tower built in the next five years offered subsidized power, as many as 3.6 million people could stand to benefit from improved energy access. 2-3kW of redundant power from a tower’s solar storage solution is enough to provide basic power (for example to power a fridge, a fan, lighting, and for phone charging) to approximately 20 homes. And the impact could be even greater if existing towers that require new power solutions also offer their subsidized power to its surrounding community.
The many benefits of a solar storage solution
Of course, this potential impact is relatively hypothetical at this stage – we don’t know with certainty how many towers will be built, although we do know that the industry is growing rapidly. And we don’t know that all those towers would be powered with a solar storage solution – although the eyewatering cost of diesel makes it a highly attractive option. But what we do know is that environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns are becoming more prominent for many Nigerian companies – including for telecoms providers and tower operators, and that switching to solar power has many advantages.
It is cost competitive, reliable and has the potential to significantly boost the positive impact that the telecoms industry stands to have on its customers. Altogether it should be an easy decision for the telecoms industry to consider it as a key part of its future growth strategy while helping to close the energy access gap for millions of people too.