Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lack of biofuel feed stocks, impacts on ICT sector

Features of the week:

GSMA recently disclosed that a biofuel project in Nigeria was terminated due to lack of biofuel feed stocks. REMMY NWEKE examines the impact to the nation’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector.

JUST a few weeks ago, it was revealed that the pilot biofuel project embarked upon in the country by one of the nation’s leading telecommunications operators, MTN Nigeria Communications Limited, alongside the worldwide operators group, the Global System for Mobile Association (GSMA) and Ericsson, was terminated because of lack of biofuel feed stocks.

A little over two years ago, the trio of MTN Nigeria, Ericsson and GSMA announced they were teaming up in using biofuels to expand mobile coverage in Nigeria amidst other developing countries of the world.

And, precisely on October 11, 2006, it was proclaimed that they have established biofuels as an alternative source of power for wireless networks in the developing world, by setting up a pioneering project in Nigeria to demonstrate the potential of biofuels in replacing diesel as a source of power for mobile base stations located beyond the reach of the electricity grid.

What is Electricity grid?
Electricity grid is commonly known to be the official or public power supply system in a given country like Nigeria, with grid connection costing about $25,000 (about N213,675.21), which includes the purchasing of transformer by the desiring entities.

Described by, as a huge, complex network of wires and devices that carries electricity from where it is generated to where it is used, electricity grid in Nigeria, as at two years ago, showed only 25 per cent is connected to the electricity grid, thereby forcing telecom operators to invest in the alternative.

What is biodiesel?
The General Manager, Regulatory at MTN Nigeria, Mr. Wale Goodluck, agreed with experts that biodiesel is a biofuel produced from various feedstocks including vegetable oils, such as oil-seed, rape-seed, soya bean, and animal fats or algae, which could be blended with diesel for use in diesel engine vehicles. While biofuel is a term that applies to any solid, liquid, or gaseous fuel produced from organic once-living matter, thus covers a wide range of products, some of which are commercially available today.

According to experts, biodiesel have several advantages over conventional diesel as a power source for base stations, because it could be produced locally, create employment in rural areas, while reducing the need for transportation, related logistics and security. Biodiesel, also, has much lower impact on the environment than conventional diesel and its cleaner burning fuel results in fewer site visits, thus extending the life of base station generators, and reducing operators costs.

For GSMA officials, biofuel results out of produce from feed stocks grown on deforested idle and marginal land for the purpose of biofuel crop plantation, paving the way for lowering carbon emissions than diesel when calculated on a whole of life basis and taking into account the effect of land use changes.

Initial positions:
The Chief Technology Information Officer of MTN Group, Mr. Karel Pienaar, noted that the early adoption of biofuel-powered mobile networks would place Africa at the forefront of a new wave of innovation that is making mobile communications affordable and accessible across the developing world.

He said, the project, supported by expertise and funding from the GSMA’s Development Fund, Ericsson and MTN, established a pilot biodiesel-powered base station solution in Lagos and was hopeful to later deploying biodiesel-fueled base stations in rural regions of south eastern and south western Nigeria.

The three organizations also agreed to set up a supply chain designed to benefit the local population by sourcing a variety of locally-produced crops and processing them into biofuel. This includes groundnuts, pumpkin seeds, jatropha, and palm oil to be used in the initial pilot tests.

Economic sense of mobile base stations:
Commenting, chief executive officer, GSMA, Mr. Rob Conway, said that the extension of mobile networks into rural areas is vital to boost the social and economic welfare of developing world. Stressing, “Biofuels have the potential to make that happen by giving mobile operators local access to a commercially and environmentally sustainable power supply.”

Equally, the project tended to draw on findings of the pilot to help operators across the developing world determine whether they could use biodiesel to power their networks in rural areas.

The Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Ericsson, Mr. Bert Nordberg, said then that in order to reach the next billion mobile users, the biofuel source is vital to lower-spending segments of the population profitably, mostly by using locally-produced biofuels.

Nigeria lacks biofuels feedstock:
Responding to ITRealms Online queries on the project termination, GSMA said that Nigeria lacks relevant feed stocks to sustain biodiesel project.

GSMA’s spokesman, Mr. David Pringle, stated in an email response that as at the duration of the project, which lasted for eight months, between October 2006 and May 2007 that Nigeria lacked the requisite quantity needed for the sustainability of the project.

“The pilot found that Nigeria didn’t, at that time, have a large enough sustainable source of non-food feedstock,” he declared, pointing out that though the business environment continues to evolve, and urged Nigerian mobile operators to come up with their kind of envisaged biofuel-powered base stations for the industry.

The pilot, he said, involved base station generator trials in Lagos to support three test sites located in Badagry, Makurdi, Lagos with biodiesel produced from feedstock and procured in Plateau State. Other potential feed stocks were assessed from Ogun, Kogi, Benue, Borno and Kano. He stressed that the pilot established the operational feasibility of biodiesel production use in standard tower base stations.

Outcome of the pilot phase and Jatropha:
According to Pringle, the pilot programme, came to some conclusions, including that availability and proximity of feedstock is critical, saying “Although, there are significant investments in jatropha plantations underway in neighboring Mali and to a lesser extent in Nigeria (particularly in the north), a sustainable source of non-food feedstock requires years to become established.”

Portrayed as a non-edible evergreen shrub found in Asia, Africa and the West Indies, Jatropha, is seeds containing a high proportion of oil which could be used for the production of biofuel, and is noted as a genus of approximately 175 succulent plants, shrubs and trees from the family Euphorbiaceae.

GSMA equally said the processing machinery and quality control are critical “ingredients for transesterification and must be available - methanol, fresh water, caustic soda.”

For Pringle, operators should partner with a regional bio-fuel producer to ensure quality and economics of scale in the venture.

Head, Marketing Communications at Ericsson West Africa, Mr. Olabode Sowunmi Jnr. confirmed the termination of the pilot project, but did not offer explanation, while the external communications manager of MTN Nigeria, Mr. Andrew Okeleke was mute on the subject as at press time, as well as other key mobile operators in the country.

Powering 50 per cent base stations:
However, the unfortunate news of the project termination broke the same week, MTN Group alongside over 20 operators on the continent took part in the GSMA renewable energy operators forum recently hosted in Kenya by Safaricom, a leader in the use of renewable energy for networks with 30 base stations already powered by solar and wind energy. The outcome of the meeting was that they resolved to achieve 118,000 base stations on this platform before the end of 2012, via renewable energy.

The forum participants comprised of MTN Nigeria, MTC Namibia, MTN Cameroon, MTN Group, MTN Uganda, Safaricom Kenya, Vodacom Tanzania, Vodafone Egypt, Zain Group with operations in 14 African countries; namely Burkina Faso, Chad, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia with advances to launch mobile operation before the end of December 2008 in Ghana.

Others were Econet, AXIS, Bharti, Dialog, Digicel, Idea Cellular, Indosat, Grameenphone, Mobinil, Orange, Orascom Telecom Holding, Roshan, Smart, Telefonica, Telenor Pakistan, Vimpelcom and Zantel.

Speaking at the session, Mr. Conway said, achieving this objective of 118,000 in the next four years, would amount to saving up to 2.5 billion litres of diesel per annum and cutting of annual carbon emissions by up to 6.3 million tonnes. He predicted that by 2012, up to 50 per cent of new off-grid base stations in the developing world could be powered by renewable energy.

Currently, he noted that off-grid base stations have primarily been powered by generators running on diesel fuel, which is increasingly expensive, generates carbon dioxide emissions, and could be difficult to transport to remote locations.

“As they strive to bring the benefits of mobile coverage to as many people as possible, operators need to find reliable, sustainable and economic sources of power far beyond the reach of national electricity grids,” Conway said, adding that GSMA has built expertise in solar, wind and other renewable energy sources that mobile operators could easily tap to help them in connecting the unconnected, reduce operating costs and minimize environmental damage.

Following extensive research with mobile operators, Conway noted that GSMA estimated that 1,500 base stations worldwide have been powered by, at least, one form of renewable energy and outlined the challenges till date to include commercial viability, equipment availability and lack of expertise, but remarked that GSMA’s research suggested that rising diesel prices and falling renewable equipment costs entails that operators investing in green power sources for base stations could recoup the capital costs in as little as 24 months.

The Ghanaian example:
ITRealms Online gathered that a long-time producer of biofuel feed stocks in Ghana, Mr. Joe Jackson, in partnership with Kwabenah Smith runs Orun Energy to re-engineer mobile base stations. He claims to have produced a 45 per cent reduction in the Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) and a 55 per cent reduction in Operating Expenses (OPEX). Already, he said that Orun Energy’s low-cost base station achieves 60 per cent energy savings in tests with Ghana’s Kasapa since 2005 when the project began.

Counseling Nigeria operators:
Worried by lack of investment in biofuel-related products, Director-General, National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP), Mr. Obi Adiuku-Brown, counseled Nigerians, especially the operators, to invest in small-scale factories for the product, like the brown sugar production.

He pointed out that a by-product of the brown sugar called ‘molasses’ could be used as animal feed and also for the production of ethanol, noting that Nigeria currently has four brown sugar industries located in Kwali, a suburb of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Zaria in Kaduna, Omor in Anambra State and Eba’a in Rivers State.

Ethanol, a liquid fuel made from corn or other agricultural products such as sugar, also called ethyl alcohol, pure alcohol, grain alcohol or drinking alcohol, is a volatile, flammable, colourless liquid and a psychoactive drug.

Wikipedia, an open source free encyclopedia, states that except for use of fire, the fermentation of sugar into ethanol is one of the earliest organic reactions employed by humanity, with a long history as a fuel for heat and light as well as a fuel for internal combustion engines.

While Molasses also known as treacle is a thick syrup by-product from the processing of the sugarcane or sugar beet into sugar. In some parts of the world, molasses also refers to sorghum syrup. The quality of molasses depends on the maturity of the sugar cane or beet, the amount of sugar extracted as well as the method of extraction.

Although GSMA since October 2005, provides consulting support to innovative pilot projects that use mobile technology to boost social, economic and environmental welfare in developing countries, the grid connection has been found to be unavailable in many locations in developing countries of the world, while the portion of the population targeted by current mobile network expansion is increasingly off the grid zone.

Just as GSMA in 2007 in its top-10 findings, stated that where grid power could be attained it took a longer period of time to come by, that is, between six months and two years. Therefore, the cost of extending the grid to power off-grid base station could be enormous.

Equally, industry watchers advocated for alternative source of energy supply, with a greater number favourably endorsing the biofuel method, saying it’s cost effective and at the same time boosting the agricultural produce of any given nation to embraces it, even as it could be a source of foreign exchange earnings within the region.

As suggested by Pringle, mobile operators must engage long-time producers of biofuel seeds if this war is to be won.

Remarkable though is that even the major suppliers of base stations, such as Ericssons have anticipated the growing demand for green networks and have introduced a variety of low-energy products as well as renewable energy power solutions to aid mobile penetration which in turn boosts Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) in developing country, like Nigeria.

And as a result, Nigeria should wake up by embracing biofuel feed stocks through the avalanche of research institutions, especially the over 94 universities in the country with corporate organizations like operators sponsoring a chair so as to encourage research and development in this regard, whereas focus should be given to agric universities.

This, would ensure, that the alternative source like biofuels must be produced in a manner that contributes to the socio-economic development of the local, rural and indigenous peoples and communities, thereby giving hope to its sustainability.

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1 comment:

SteveK said...

Nigeria has plenty of biofuel feedstock for ethanol use: Typha, which infests your waters, is a top notch ethanol plant. You need to control it anyway, do it at a biofuel profit!