OPINION: Is the Katsina wind farm project becoming another expensive white elephant? By Daudu Abdul-Aziz
When the decision to embark on building the Katsina wind farm was announced almost a decade ago, it received a ringing endorsement from renewable energy enthusiasts and the general public at large. For a country still struggling to address the seemingly never ending energy shortages, any power project with the potential of adding something to the nation’s power generating capacity would be warmly received. The protracted delay in completing the project is however causing concern. The conflicting reports in the press of late about the actual status of the project have further dampened people’s expectations.
Let us refresh our memory about this important project: it is sited at Lambar Rimi, a small village 25 km south of Katsina Village (read city for village). It was first envisioned by the Katsina State government under late Umaru Musa Yar’adua and later gained full support from the federal government, through the federal ministry of power in 2007. The main drivers for the pioneer wind project in the country according to the government were “the need to diversify Nigeria’s energy mix by exploiting the vast wind resources in the northern part of the country, boost electricity generation and subsequently increase availability of power supply”. The contract was awarded by the FMP to the French wind turbine manufacturer Vergnet S. A., while the Nigerian company O. T. Otis Engineering and the German firm Terrawatt were hired as consultants to supervise the project. The plant is to consist of 37 wind turbines with a rated capacity of 275 kW each. The project, according to the statement, is being funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency.
It is curious that various figures ranging from 95 to 98 are being peddled as the percentage of the project’s completion when only five of its thirty seven turbines are reported to have been installed and tested. Surely completing the installation of 5 out of 37 turbines cannot be sufficient to constitute such high project completion percentage even if all the equipment has been delivered to site.
It does appear from information available that finance has not been a major constraint to the project. The problem is largely one of project management. This makes it all the more puzzling. At the initial stages the project seemed to be making quite remarkable progress until December 19, 2012 when Francis Collomp, Vergnet S. A.’s French engineer handling the project was kidnapped during a bloody operation in which three people lost their lives. Work subsequently stopped at the site while attention was presumably focused on securing the release of the French hostage. Happily, Mr Collomp regained his freedom on 11 November 2013 after one year in captivity. Whether the eventual release of the hostage was the result of those efforts or of the hostage’s own efforts as he claimed is a matter of conjecture. What is important is that he has finally regained his freedom. The next essential task should rightly have been a total reassessment and tightening up of the security arrangement around the project area to make it safer for work.
The wind farm project has been mothballed since the unfortunate kidnap fiasco. Attempts by government to restart it have not been successful. Even the visit to the site in 2015 by former president Jonathan would appear to have been staged for the purpose of the last election.
It has been mentioned that agreements have been reached for the project to be completed by the Nigerian subsidiary of the French contractor or by some other Nigerian company. If this information is correct, the decision is ill-advised. Quite clearly fears about safety of personnel were the main reason why the contractor had been reluctant to re-mobilize and complete the project. On that account the contractor cannot be faulted. One would say with the benefit of hindsight that the hostage situation could or even should have been better managed but it was a particular case of force majeure which needed to be handled carefully. What was expected once the situation normalized was for both parties to agree to resume work without any precondition. It is arguable whether normality can be said to have returned to the Lambar Rimi site.
The decision will also be wrong on technical grounds. Project end products, especially electrical systems, either fail or don’t last not because equipment supplied is substandard or old but essentially because initial commissioning has not been done properly and thoroughly. This is a matter both of skill and experience. Wind energy may well have a very long history in its multifarious uses in windmills for grinding grain, pumping water, ship propulsion and even for small scale generation of electricity. But the technology for integrating it into electric power grids is new and evolving; only an exclusive club of companies worldwide, of the likes of Vergnet S. A., have the speciality. It is doubtful if any Nigerian company is proficient enough in the application of the technology to take over the project.
Having expended so much in resources and organization to get the project off the ground, Nigeria cannot afford to adopt a gung-ho approach at the latter stages of its implementation lest it becomes another expensive white elephant. The proposals contained in the eagerly awaited 2016 federal budget for these types of projects may be the sort of intervention that can change the fortunes of the Katsina wind farm.