Oil Crisis Sparks Shift to Renewable Energy in Liberia

It stands one storey tall and is painted in radiant orange and green but that is not what makes Emma’s Fashion perhaps the most noticeable building at V.O.A. Junction on the Roberts International Airport highway. What makes it stand out is 16 solar panels attached to two opposite sides of its roof, providing the modern salon and boutique with electricity.

Emma’s Fashion began using solar power just one month after it was established in December 2015,  says Executive Director Emma Wamah. The business uses a generator for up to seven hours and then switches to solar for the remaining portion of the day and throughout the night.

Wamah says she pays US$100 to a solar service provider on a flat-rate basis, enough to power all of her beauty and sewing equipment. She had decided to use solar panels at her business after it proved less costly and more convenient in using it to power her home just nearby.

“If you run solar 24 seven, you have less bill, you have no wear and tea2r compared to a generator. There is no noise, there is no smoke,” she says. When your generator breaks down you have to find someone to repair the generator and all of that. So it is just hectic, the solar panel is just cool.” And Wamah doesn’t expect to stop with just this one. “As time goes by, I will go for a larger one at the business center because it is more beneficial than the generator.”

Climate change campaigners around the world, including in Liberia, are urging a global shift away from fossil fuel to renewable energy—energy generated from the sun, wind, water and even garbage, just to name a few potential sources. Scientists say fossil fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel used in generators and coal power plants emit carbon dioxide (CO2) that causes global warming. Global warming has been blamed for floods, droughts, sea level rise and other forms of extreme weather around the world.

“With the use of renewable energy, you are not putting out carbon dioxide (CO2) and as such you are reducing the effect of global warming,” says Stephen Potter, Program Director of the Rural and Renewable Energy Agency (RREA), an entity established in 2010 “to facilitate and accelerate the economic transformation of rural Liberia by developing the commercial supply of sustained renewable energy services with an emphasis in local indigenous resources.

“When you run a hydropower turbine, there is no carbon dioxide emitted, when you use solar plates, there is no carbon dioxide emitted.”

Renewable energy is not a new idea in Liberia but it has made slow progress towards being a reality. Unlike Emma’s Fashion, few homes and shops are powered by solar panels or other form of renewable energy. Private generators are the main sources of electricity in Liberia, while the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) depends on diesel fuel generators to supply a minute portion of the Monrovia and its environs.

With the price of gasoline and diesel fuel barely US$3 a gallon, thanks to the sharp drop in the price of oil on the world market, the shift to renewable energy in Liberia is not as attractive as it was when the prices were higher. But experts say more Liberians and people around the world will need to make the shift to renewables if we are to ward off catastrophic impact on the earth.

Experts say oil prices are unpredictable due to a variety of economic, political and social factors, making future projection in the sector rather complex. Also, the actual price of oil is never known because it is not possible to quantify the future damage they will cause to people and the environment.

In a recent report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said that the world pays US$5.3 trillion yearly in hidden costs to keep burning fossil fuels in addition to US$500 billion in direct government subsidies. And, among other arguments, low oil prices buy time for climate change campaigners who are using the current oil crisis to advocate against investment in the fossil fuel sector—rig and drilling equipment, for instance. If they’re successful Liberia’s fledgling oil sector could be hurt.

Silas Siakor, the international award-winning Liberian environmentalist says Liberia’s own internal oil crisis is quite sufficient an argument for a redirection of the country’s energy sector.

“My thinking coming out of the war, reflecting on the situation coming out of the conflict, given the level of bad governance, given the level of the breakdown of the fabric of our Liberian society, if we decided to engage in the oil sector, the possibility of causing a lot of damages is way too high that it raises the question of the sensibleness to do that,” Siakor says.

Liberia’s emerging oil sector is now in shambles following the bankruptcy of the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL), blamed on low global oil prices from around US$120 to US$30 a barrel beginning the second half of 2014 and corporate mismanagement. Super majors such as Chevron and Anadarko have relinquished oil blocks off the Liberian coast, and though Exxon Mobil promises to make the expensive investment of as much as $1m a day to drilling for oil off Liberia’s coast this year, some question whether they will actually be willing to spend that money.

Siakor looks to countries like Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea where massive oil income has fueled rampant corruption and stopped the economy from diversifying into other sectors that could provide more jobs for Nigerians. While a few at the top have untold wealth, the majority of Nigerians and Equatorial Guineans live in extreme poverty.

“My concern of at the time, and which remains my concern today, is that if we had found oil and we had seen US$2 billion to US$3 billion coming into our national economy year-on-year, the damage it would have caused would have been a serious problem for this country,” Siakor continues.

“We were already seeing a lot of negative impacts on our political system, even though we had not found the first drop of oil,” he adds. “Across Africa it has been a curse and I don’t think Liberia will be any different.”

Liberia is among the 186 countries that made a commitment at the Paris Climate Talks last December towards the reduction of the emission of carbon dioxide as part of a planet goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

Liberia individually pledged to reduce carbon emission by 15 percent by 2025 or 2030, not hard to do when its carbon emission rate is still at zero. The truth is the bulk of the problem is caused by the major industrial powers of the USA and China. As long as they do not make significant cuts in their omissions global warming cannot be stopped.

Nonetheless, Liberia must do its part and take advantage of the new industries that are being created to reduce emissions, says Peter Mulbah, Environment Policy Director at Conservation International.“We can meet the deadline of 2030 provided the entire environment is created, all of the resources that government needs are available, all of the technological transfers are made. Take for instance, how do we build green buildings? How do we start to manufacture solar panels? How do we have a good hydro plant? How do we increase the hydro plant from one to two to three? How do we increase the tariff on generators and reduce the taxes on solar panel? How do we subsidize green infrastructure, green energy?” Mulbah asks rhetorically. “Those things are enabling activities.”

Solar-powered Home

Liberia, like many poor African countries, has borne the brunt of climate change despite not having a significant number of manufacturing industries. In recent years sea erosion has been frequent in many communities in several counties, including Montserrado (Monrovia), Grand Bassa, and Grand Cape Mount. There have been frequent rainstorms in Lofa and Bong Counties, the former in communities still fully recovering from the Ebola epidemic. Climate change is also causing hardship to farmers who have too little, too much or unreliable rainfall.

“We are part of the global world. When the heat in the atmosphere cannot be released, it falls back on the entire earth. We are all feeling the effects of global warming and we must all work towards it,” Potter says.
There are many obstacles, including the high cost of solar technology. According to the World Food Program (WFP), an estimated 64 percent of Liberians live below the poverty line of US$1.90 a day, of whom 1.3 million people live in extreme poverty. That means that many Liberians cannot afford the expensive cost of, for instance, solar plates and their installation.

Mulbah of Conservation International: “Say I am an executive here at Conservation International, if I want to invest in solar panel I will have to save maybe seven months of my salary without touching it to be able to invest in solar panel. How many Liberians can afford to do that?” Mulbah was speaking about a solar unit—including the batteries, panels, inverters and installation—whose minimum cost is up to US$1,500 for an average home use (light bulbs, fans and television).

For Emma’s Fashion, Wamah had to first pay US$200 apiece at both her salon and home before a monthly payment of US$100 at her business and another US$400 at her home. That is an upfront cost of US$300 for the salon and US$600 for her home.

Union Strong Group, a dealer in solar panels on Benson Street in Monrovia, is strategizing to make solar panels much more affordable. It is looking at ways through which people can pay by installment for as low as L$100 and own the solar unit after a period.

“That is what we are trying to do because we know that the system is expensive at times. Our goal is to make it as affordable as possible and that is why we want all our prices to be internationally comparable,” says Chief Operating Officer Richard Neal, adding that Union Strong Group was setting up a scheme with commercial banks and employers to have many homes and businesses powered by solar energy.

“We are all trying to grow the solar energy industry in Liberia,” he says. “There are opportunities everywhere, from the rural areas to Monrovia itself.

“The business is growing.  When I say ‘is growing’ there is a huge interest in solar light.  I don’t think that fossil fuel is always going to be needed, that is not the case.”

RREA with support from the World Bank has brought into the country 31,000 of a targeted total of 100,000 of a variety of solar lanterns, some capable of charging mobile phones. These lanterns are being sold nationwide by select retailers at different prices ranging from US$10 and 150 dollars. One retailer sells the lantern in the minimarts at Total filling stations nationwide.

Also, a 60-kilowatt mini hydropower plant in Yandohun Town in Vahun District, Lofa County is another project undertaken by RREA with support from the World Bank that supplies 165 homes with electricity. And Potter discloses that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is also supporting the agency in the construction of a one-megawatt hydropower plant at the Kpatawee Waterfall in Bong County, as well as plans underway for similar projects in other parts of the country.
“Liberia is blessed with abundance of natural resources—one, we have a lot of rivers, seven months of rain—and so we have an abundance of water—, abundance of sunshine, biomass resources. All of those resources can be converted,” Potter says.

Awareness remains a key issue surrounding the widespread use of renewable energy. Despite a series of roadshow events and jingoes, some in vernaculars on community radio stations, Potter says people do not actually know the benefits of renewable energy or the idea. “[Renewable energy] technology to Liberia is very new. Even though the products that we are putting out through our local agents have high dividend, the typical Liberian doesn’t see them that way.”

But Siakor does not agree, rather he thinks that government has not made the right policy decisions and has not prioritized the sector significantly enough, something he says comes before any form of awareness.
The price of solar panels worldwide has dropped by more than 80 percent since 2008, making solar power increasingly competitive with traditional fuels, a trend, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), that will continue in the coming years.  In 2013 alone the United States spent US$13.6 million on the sector, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But Siakor says that is not the case with Libeira.

“It is inaccurate to say solar energy is expensive. Yes, the startup investment cost might be high but in the long-term once you make the start-up investment, the long-term cost of maintenance is way lower than using, for instance, diesel generator,” he says.  Siakor would like to see the Liberian government adopt policies that encourage the take up of solar, as government’s have done in the US and Europe. If that happened, he said, the price for Liberians would drop sharply.

“If the right policy framework was in place—for example, there were no taxes on the import of solar panels solar-related batteries and lights—that means those who bring it in the country would sell it twice cheaper than what they are actually selling it right now, that means it could actually be affordable to quite a significant number of the population.”

The government has claimed to be focused on delivering one major clean energy source. The completion of the Mount Coffee Hydropower Plant, which will generate energy using the power of moving water, has been a key priority of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf since she took office. The projected is slated to finally come partially online at the end of this year, with completion before Sirleaf hands power to a new president in 2018 following presidential elections in 2017. Just two percent of Liberia’s population has access to the 22.6 megawatt LEC grid, provided by four high speed diesel generators basically for some parts of Monrovia and its environs at 50 cents per kilowatt hour, probably the most expensive in the world.

Siakor says Liberia’s energy problem today would have been averted had President Sirleaf back in 2006 made a decision to fully invest in renewable energy, given the huge potential in the sector, as well as the global campaign even at that time for a shift away from fossil fuels.
“We decided that we were going to go to the same kinds of energy, which is generators bringing in fuel and providing electricity for small percentage of the population and continuing on the pollution trend,” laments Siakor, slamming the campaign, “Small light today, big light tomorrow”.

“We are at the point where almost 12 years after the war we are still trying to rebuild the Mount Coffee Hydropower Plant. If we had started off with small-scale projects, three to four of them would have been up and running by this time, we would have been providing electricity to a good amount of the population,” he adds.

When completed, the Mount Coffee Hydropower Plant will produce 88 megawatt, 24 megawatt more than its prewar status.  Even with the West African Power Pool that is expected to be implemented in some part of this month (July), that will take power from Yekepa, Nimba County to Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, more energy will be needed to power the entire country. Liberia, including all of its concessions, needs an estimated 350 megawatt of electric power by 2020.

Back at Emma’s Fashion, Wamah may not be aware of dilemma of Liberia’s energy situation. But there is one thing that she knows for sure: she is now paying less with the solar unit at both her salon and home.
“I have vacancies for two tailors and two stylists,” she announces, wearing a big smile.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation/New Narratives Liberia Oil Reporting Project, which is part of the Foundation’s pan-African program Wealth of Nations (wealth-of-nations.org) See more at www.newnarratives.org