Ghana’s power crisis: What about renewable energy?

In August 2012, the West African Gas Pipeline (WAGP) was damaged by the anchor of a ship that was trying to avoid a pirate attack. As a result, the people of Ghana have had to endure agonising load-shedding exercises for over a year as we have waited for the pipeline to be repaired and re-commissioned.

Until this occurs, some power plants which depend on gas to run their turbines cannot resume operation. This technical problem has affected the supply of gas to the Volta River Authority (VRA) and Sunon Asogli Plant in Tema which, when in operation, generated 200 megawatts (MW) of power for the country. This period of load shedding has been named in Ghanaian parlance as ‘dumsor, dumsor’, meaning  ‘off and on’.

The WAGP, a joint initiative of some ECOWAS member countries, including Ghana, Benin and Togo, was inaugurated during the time of Nigeria’s Obasanjo administration. The pipeline serves to supply gas from the Escravos-Lagos Pipeline to feed gas-fired power plants in West African countries. It is now the main source of gas supply to Ghana’s main generator and supplier of electricity, the Volta River Authority (VRA). 

The entire pipeline, which passes through Togo and Benin to Ghana, is about 656 kilometres, comprising 600 kilometres offshore, in addition to a 56-kilometre onshore section. Until the damage was done to the pipeline, Ghana was receiving 123 million cubic feet of gas daily to supplement VRA's hydro-electricity generation by about 580 megawatts (32.5 per cent), using thermal plants in Tema and Aboadze, near Takoradi. 

Another project is also in the works to provide some respite for the country-the Ghana Gas Deep Water Pipeline, an initiative of the Ghana National Gas Company, which has already reached the

pre-commission stage. However, even with the hope of this promising energy project taken into consideration, there would still be a shortfall in the gas required to run the nation’s thermal plants.

Given the country’s current challenges, the Electricity Company of Ghana has announced an emergency load-shedding exercise in order to ration the use of the power being generated by VRA.  

The exercise has compelled many businesses to employ standby generators for the periods when their lights are out. The shortage of power poses a severe threat to Ghana’s economy. Many small-scale businesses, including catering companies and barber’s and hairdresser’s salons have been unable to consistently meet customer demand because their businesses depend on a stable supply of electricity. 

The prohibitive costs of purchasing and running a standby generator does not make this option feasible for many SMEs of this scale. 

The effect of this rationing has also been felt beyond the boundaries of industry. Domestic consumers are struggling with the inconvenience of doing without basic electricity for long stretches of time. In addition, the fluctuations caused by the act of power being cut off and restored to their circuitry have resulted in many expensive electronic gadgets and equipment malfunctioning or being destroyed altogether. Furthermore, Ghanaians have at times been unable to refrigerate foodstuffs properly, resulting in food going bad and having to be thrown away. All of these unfortunate situations are costly.

In the light of these challenges, the Ghana government and the Ministry of Energy have been under pressure to do something about the country’s electricity problem and have already taken a number of critical steps towards mitigating the power crisis. 

The government has so far initiated some projects to generate supplementary electricity for the national grid. These include 132MW of power from the T3 plant in Aboadze-Takoradi, 400MW Bui Dam, 2MW solar power at Navrongo and the expansion of the T2 thermal plant at Aboadze for an additional 110MW. A public education and sensitisation programme has also been embarked upon by the government to sensitise people to the benefits of conserving energy. 

These initiatives are commendable examples of an overarching national energy policy thrust on the part of the government to shore up the country’s energy security in the next few years. 

A pivotal part of this policy is a drive to increase the ratio of sustainable to non-sustainable energy in the nation’s energy mix. Modern advancements in power-generation technology have allowed many other countries to move beyond legacy solutions towards more sustainable methods of addressing their citizens’ energy needs, which include biomass, solar and wind generation. 

It is the government’s intention that these greener and more eco-friendly solutions will not only bring Ghana in line with global energy standards but ensure that the nation is more secure as a consequence of having a diverse portfolio of robust energy solutions. In such a case, disruptions in power supply will be far less likely and local businesses will not be burdened with the current challenges. 

Biomass, the means of producing electricity from living matter such as decayed plant material, is a particularly useful solution as it affords the country avenues for both energy generation and waste disposal. While biomass fuel can be bulky and, therefore, expensive to collect and transport, the positive environmental benefits afforded the country offset these costs in the long term. The result is a more efficient use of existing resources, as well as overall benefit to the health of and sanitary conditions for citizenry. 

The Volta River Authority has already begun investigations into the feasibility of constructing wind power facilities under the auspices of public-private partnerships (PPP), a laudable government initiative which is already seeing other sectors such as the road and transportation sector utilise private investment for public good. 

The hope is that the establishment of wind farms in selected areas of the country will further reduce the country’s dependence on hydro and thermal power generation. The expected result; a national power supply that is less susceptible to adverse effects of drought and fuel hikes which are not under the country’s control. 

With Ghana’s domestic electricity demand being projected to exceed 5,400MW in 2020, it is also important that the country leverages one of its most abundant energy sources- sunlight-a natural and sustainable source of both heat and light energy. 

While an initial investment in solar energy comes with significant capital cost, opportunities for private-public partnership exist here also. 

Recently, news making rounds has it that the Mere Power Nzema Limited (MPNL) has plans to construct a 155MW solar power plant in the Ellembelle District in Ghana’s Western Region. MPNL is owned by UK-based investors and developers, Mere Power Limited and Blue Energy, who are industry known renewable energy experts. 

While land has been secured and some tariffs obtained, the plant project awaits approval in the areas of pending permits, licenses and a governmental consent and support agreement.

The solar plant will constitute one more strategic move on the part of the government to increase the renewable energy mix of the nation’s energy sector. Furthermore, renewable energy projects such as solar and biomass plants boost the country’s economy in other ways, serving as a source of direct and indirect employment. 

Not only will the construction phase involve the hiring of employees, but when up and running, the plant will require additional skilled and unskilled staff to maintain and service it when it is in operation. Furthermore, with the additional electricity generated by such sustainability projects, Ghana gains the ability to export its surplus power to neighbouring countries, which can earn the country valuable foreign exchange.


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