Renewable Energy for Security: Electricity and the Boko Haram Kidnapping

It’s 10 p.m. The lights in your village of Chibok, in a remote corner of Nigeria, went out for the night half an hour before. Blackness and quiet cover the land, and you drift off to sleep in your bed in the girls’ dormitory. Suddenly, you are startled awake by footsteps and loud voices — men’s voices — telling you that the village is under attack, and that they are soldiers here to keep you safe. “Hurry! Hurry now!” they implore. “Get on the bus! Quickly! You must come with us — now!” There is no light, only a few torches held by the men, and you rush to the bus in alarm. Only when you are on the road, in their bus or truck, do you realize with horror that these are no soldiers. These men are not your rescuers, but your captors.

And so it was that 276 school girls were brutally kidnapped in the night, because there were no lights to reveal the truth. In all, 218 girls remain missing since they were seized from Chibok secondary school in Borno state, north-eastern Nigeria, in April 2014.

While some girls did escape shortly after the fighters stormed their school, since then only a single girl, on May 18 this year, has been rescued by pro-government forces.

The Chibok kidnapping launched an international outrage against the Boko Haram terrorist group that had been in the habit of kidnapping women and girls in Northeast Nigeria. After the initial slow-footed response, the government sent a delegation to the affected communities, including Chibok. I recently had the pleasure of meeting with a member of that delegation. This official told the story of how the villagers were thankful for the enhanced military protection, but what they felt would be most effective for providing security was electricity.

Electricity at the Chibok school is provided by a diesel generator that only runs until 9:30 in the evening — a common situation in areas where there is no other electricity at all. Boko Haram waited until 10 p.m., when the village and school were pitch dark, to strike. Their ruse was easy to pull off because of the darkness.

A compelling lesson from Chibok is that a little bit of consistent power can make a tremendous difference to the 1.3 billion people in the world who live without it. Electricity benefits social development like education and healthcare, and economic development, like agriculture and infrastructure. Electricity allows medical clinics to operate and vaccines to be kept at the right temperature. Electricity allows children to study in the evening. Electricity allows parents to run cottage industries in their homes and builds little ecosystems of economic activities in locales where it is a given.

This story about the Chibok girls kidnapping in Nigeria illustrates an even more compelling reason for rural electrification. Security comes first. There are places all over the world, but especially in Africa, where there can be no improvements to health, education, or economic development because there is no security. I had always thought that security came before electricity, but this tragedy is a clear message to the world that electricity brings security.

Governments and international development agencies are still promoting grid extension as a solution to rural electrification. But the grid may very well never reach places like Chibok, Nigeria, and doing so makes no sense in any case, due to the isolated nature and geographic distance between these communities. The central grid in most places like Nigeria cannot provide reliable service even to the main urban cities. Extending an already overextended grid only makes that problem worse and makes little economic sense.

The solution is hybrid renewable power — a combination of solar, energy storage, sometimes wind, and a generator backup. Hybrid renewable power has played and is playing a central role in bringing cost-effective, reliable, sustainable, 24-hour power to thousands of villages like Chibok, and other areas of the world that deserve to have the lights on. There are solutions.

This article was originally published by Homer Energy and was republished with permission.

Lead image: Escaped schoolgirl Saa shares her account of Boko Haram abduction. Hudson Institute | Flickr

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Dr. Peter Lilienthal is the CEO of HOMER Energy. Since 1993, he has been the developer of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s HOMER® hybrid microgrid power optimization software, which has been used by over 160,000 energy practitioners in 193 countries. Dr. Lilienthal was the Senior Economist with International Programs at NREL from 1990 – 2007. He helped create NREL’s Village Power Programs. He has a Ph.D. in Management Science & Engineering from Stanford University. He has been active in renewable energy since 1978, including teaching at university, project development, and consulting to industry and regulators. Dr. Lilienthal is a global expert and pioneer in microgrid technology.

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