Craving for Alternative Energy: ABU Zaria and UN Nsukka In-depth Progress (1), by Professor MK Othman

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Alhaji Ibrahim Garba

Globally, there are three fundamental functions of a university system in a nation building. The functions are teaching, research and community service. These functions require enormous and consistent use of human and materials sources, conducive-atmosphere and continuous supply of energy to operate the system. The quantum of these requirements is proportional to the size of the university. Relatively, large universities need large financial resources to meet these requirements and play their expected roles.

In Nigeria, with free-tuition fee for undergraduate students in public universities, low-income generation, relatively small available grants and poor funding; managing university to meet these requirements becomes herculean. The consequences are perennial and unending university’s unions’ industrial actions as well as difficulty in maintaining educational standard. Among these requirements, energy is the life-wire of the university system but it is highly unreliable in Nigerian situation. It is also the most fund guzzling of the university’s lean purse on monthly basis. This has made management of public university very challenging.

The case of monthly payment of electricity bill by Ahmadu Bello University Zaria can clearly show the enormity of fund use to settle the bill of electricity. The current Vice Chancellor of the university, Prof Ibrahim Garba at the resumption of office in 2015 was welcomed by the mounting challenge of paying sky-rocketed electricity bill of over 80 million Naira monthly. He was quoted lamenting on the university’s difficulty to pay the bill “that independent power generation became imperative and necessary to the university because ABU could not sustain the N86 million monthly electricity bills. ABU seeks to address these issues by building a bio-ethanol and biogas plant for the benefits of the university and the surrounding communities.”

The high cost of energy to operate large university and continuous increase in prices of petroleum products, especially kerosene, the socio-economic implications and their impact on the environment make it imperative for the managers of Nigerian universities to search for efficient alternatives. This is why at least two universities are making fruitful progress in finding quantifiable biogas as alternative to public electricity supply. These universities are Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria and University of Nigeria (UN) Nsukka. How far have they gone? What are their challenges and opportunities to potential investors?

Before then, it is important to adequately introduce these two first generation universities, ABU Zaria, located in the capital of Zazzau emirate, Kaduna State and UN Nsukka, located in the northern fringe of Igbo land, Enugu State. They were both conceived and nurtured by pre-independence nationalists: Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Owelle of Onitsha. Bello was the first and the last premier of the northern region while Azikiwe was Governor General of Nigeria from 1960 to 1963 and the first President of Nigeria from 1963 to 1966.

Ahmadu Bello University Zaria is one of the first generation universities in Nigeria. It was established in 1962 by the Government of the then Northern Region of Nigeria to impart knowledge and learning to men and women of all races without distinction on the grounds of race, religious or political beliefs. The founding fathers expected the University to aspire to the highest international ideals of scholarship and to provide learning of a standard required and expected of a university of the highest standing while reflecting the needs, the traditions, and the social and intellectual heritage of the society in which it is located. The University was taken over by the Federal Government of Nigeria in 1975 and has since then assumed a national mandate although its ties with the 19 states created out of the former Northern Region remain very strong and ever glued

In the over fifty years of its existence, ABU has grown to become the largest, and the most influential and diverse university in Nigeria. It consists of over 100 Academic Departments, thirteen Faculties, and fourteen Research Institutes and Specialized Centres. The University offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses in diverse fields of Agriculture, Public and Business Administration, Engineering, Environmental Design, Education, Biological and Physical Sciences, Medical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the Humanities, Law and Social Sciences. The university has two campuses: Samaru and Kongo covering an estimated area of 7,000 hectares of land. Another unique feature of the University, as opposed to other Institutions of its type in Nigeria, is that it has both staff and students from all nooks and cranny of Nigeria, neighboring countries and few other countries across the continents. The university alumni cut across the social classes from former Nigerian President, Vice President, serving and former governors/Deputy governors of virtually all the 36 governors plus Federal Capital Territory, Abuja down to thousands of local government councilors and millions of ordinary graduates of different specializations nationwide and across the globe. Today, ABU Zaria houses over hundred thousand people comprising, undergraduates, postgraduates, staff and their families living within and outside Zaria. In spite of her relatively large size, ABU Zaria is amazingly expanding in academic programs, students and staff population as well as in academic excellence.

The motivation for ABU Zaria to source for alternative energy came from the university’s desire to drastically reduce the monthly electricity bill being paid to PHCN. In addition, alternative energy will reduce dependence on the fossil fuel as energy source.

In the last four years or so, ABU Zaria has vigorously craved for alternative energy. The university has recorded four different efforts with high potential to revolutionize energy production to meet her needs and the needs of her surrounding communities.

The first project was the Nigeria-German Energy Partnership for the construction of 10 Mega watts from solar energy source. The project implementation commenced with a financial support of Tertiary Education Trust Fund. The second one was through a collaborative project with a Hungarian firm, Agrar-Biothanol Company, to generate power from farm produce and human waste (faeces). The ABU- Agrar-Biothanol Company project targeted to produce 2.66 million litres of ethanol per annum, 1,333 tons of liquid organic fertilizer per annum and 1.2 Mega watts of electricity. The third equally important effort was ABU-BIONAS project whose Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the university and BIONAS, a Malaysian Firm, were signed a year ago.

The fourth effort was the conversion of typha grass into biogas, animal feeds and organic fertilizer. This effort is through one of the university research center: National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison services (NAERLS). The typha grass conversion project is a 3 – year World Bank funded project under Transformation of Irrigation in Nigeria (TRIMING). The typha project is aimed at transforming the ecological devastation of irrigation schemes caused by typha grass to economic opportunities.

Typha grass is one of the resource materials with higher potentials for biogas generation. The plant is aquatic in nature and highly prolific with occupation and blockage capability of the inland waterways and irrigation channels. It can store a large amount of energy by growing fast and producing large biomass, and this, in turn, polluted the environment. This was a major problem in the Hadejia Valley irrigation project in northern Nigeria. At this irrigation scheme, the plant threatens economic activities, health and livelihood of the surrounding communities. Typha growth negatively affects the productivity of rice fields, blocks water channels impedes the flow of rivers, hinders navigations and fishing, and increases flooding risks. Despite its potential to be used as a renewable energy source for biogas generation, limited effort has been made to do that. This could be attributed to the low rate of cellulosic digestion, as well as ability to slow specific growth rates of anaerobic microorganisms involved in anaerobic conversion in conventional bioreactors.

The typha grass project innovated means of enriching microorganism with high cellulose activities through the use of rumen fluid that enhances Typha biomass degradation for biogas generation. At the laboratory experimentation, the microorganisms were able to degrade the grass and provided a source of clean energy for lighting, heating, and cooking. The technology could serve as an innovative solution with high potentials to not only provide affordable power for Nigerians in rural areas but also to greatly improve the health and livelihood of families.

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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