Evil in dieselBy Akinleye Sowunmi
Published on 29 October 2015
By the time you finish reading this article, 32,000 liters of diesel would have been consumed in powering telecommunications base station in Nigeria.
Diesel is a liquid fuel used to drive compression ignition (CI) engines. It may be classified as diesel-1 (winterized diesel) or diesel-2 (AGO); the difference being its state at low temperature. Winterized diesel has a higher quantity of sulphur which is intended to avoid solidification of the fuel at low temperature. Winterized diesel is not applicable in Nigeria owing to the country’s tropical climate. Diesel fuel contains 10% more energy per gallon than petrol and is also considered safer because it doesn’t ignite or explode as easily.
Diesel fuel (AGO) is a mixture of hydrocarbons with chemical formulas ranging approximately from C10H20 to C15H28, with an average of C12H23. This implies that diesel is carbon heavy and has significant potential for greenhouse gas emission, and inherently noise pollution and the maintenance cost that ensues from running a diesel generator. When diesel is burned with the correct amount of air in an engine, it emits benign water vapor and nitrogen gases; and carbon dioxide which is a greenhouse gas. Deviation from this ideal combustion process will lead to the production of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), CO, NOx, SO2, particulate matter (PM) and polycyclic organic matter (POM). Diesel generators will deviate from ideal combustion for reasons of poor maintenance and inevitable aging. United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) estimates show that diesel engines are responsible for emission of approximately 3% of VOCs, 2% of anthropogenic CO, 32% of anthropogenic NOx, 3% of SO2 emissions, and trace amounts of toxic pollutants.
Nigeria is currently plagued with the ubiquitous use of generators, and has notoriously maintained the lead in generator import among African countries. In 2014, Nigerians spent over ₦40.8 billion ($185.5 million) importing generators ranging from 1 kVA to 2,000 kVA generator sets. In addition, $8 billion was spent on running diesel generating sets alone in 2014. Other countries such as Angola, Egypt, Algeria and Libya which follow in the lead respectively did not come close to half of Nigeria’s import levels in this period.
Research and Markets – a market research resource company – noted the telecommunications sector as the fastest growing end user of the diesel generator set in the country even as its manufacturing, commercial, construction and oil & gas sectors registered strong growth. Nigeria’s telecommunications industry has over 30,000 base stations. However with an epileptic power supply, they are forced to shift to alternative sources for a more stable primary power supply and in most cases for backup power. Each base station has an average of 2 generator sets, leading to an average of 60,000 generators nationwide, and amounting to over ₦5 billion naira spent monthly on operation and maintenance by operators nationwide. More specifically, each of these generators (15 kVA) consumes around 50 liters of diesel per day, amounting to around 90 million liters of diesel per month, asides the logistics and environmental impact of transporting the diesel. This is therefore to say that the line the telecommunications industry is towing is economically and environmentally unstable. The monthly cost of running these generator sets could otherwise be reinvested into further expansion of mobile networks’ coverage. This will certainly be key to resolving the quality of service which currently plagues the industry as a result of network congestion issues. The situation can therefore be deemed as economically and environmentally unsustainable.
From a broader perspective, every gram of diesel combusted emits 12 gram of CO2 to the environment. With a density of 0.832 kg/L, 90 million L of diesel used per month will produce 898.56 million kg of CO2 per month. Emissions calculator shows that a Honda Accord saloon car emits 160 g/km of CO2 (2.0i-VTEC 156 ES). This implies that such a car, if driven from Lagos to Abuja once a day, every day (750 km); will take 20,515 years to emit what is being produced by diesel generators at base stations in Nigeria monthly. To create a different picture, it would take 7.5 million of such cars to travel on a one-way trip from Lagos to Abuja to emit the equivalent of our telecommunications base stations in one month. This is again on the assumption that all engines are undergoing perfect combustion and the toxic gases earlier mentioned are not being emitted. Other factors to consider are the fuel used in transporting diesel. In order to reduce this environmental foot print, solar power can be deployed. For a base station with power requirement of 12 kW, a solar unit with capacity of around 72 kW is required. Assuming a cost of $1.5/W for purchase and installation, it will cost around $108,000 to power a base station by solar. This is a worthwhile long-term investment for stakeholders in the telecommunications industry and a relief to the environment considering that the minimum lifespan of a solar panel is 25 years.