Patrick Asare: Ghana’s plan to build a coal power plant merits applause, not condemnation

BY: Patrick Asare

As citizens, we have every right to criticize government policies that, in our opinion, would have negative consequences for the country and its people if implemented.

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However, this right to criticize should be accompanied by a responsibility to explain, at the very least, why we think a given policy is wrong. Otherwise, our criticisms cannot be viewed as constructive.

When it comes to a subject as complicated as carbon emissions and their contribution to climate change, simply repeating what others elsewhere have said, and using that to criticize government policy, is and should not be enough. The recent Ghana Youth Environmental Movement article, which attacked the government’s plan to build two 350-megawatt coal-fired power plants in the country, offered little justification for its opposition. It merely suggested that the plants would have “devastating health, environmental and social impacts on the communities housing them”. Using such a generalization to argue against the government’s plan is unconvincing, to say the least.

The fact is that as humans, there are numerous things that, if not consumed in moderation, would kill us. No one, however, advocates that we completely stop consuming those potentially dangerous products. Cattle, for example, are a known source of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Health experts have also said repeatedly that excessive consumption of red meat, such as beef, is harmful to humans. These two negative factors, in addition to others associated with the raising of cattle, have however not led to calls for the elimination of all cattle from the world. That is because we also know that moderate consumption of beef and milk is good for us.

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Wherever one turns these days, there is talk that the sun’s energy is free, and that African countries could rely solely on it for all of their electric power needs. In theory, every natural resource is free, until it comes time to harness it. Obtaining electricity from solar energy requires purchasing of solar panels and the inverters that convert the generated electricity into usable form. Then, due to the intermittency problem associated with such renewable energy sources, storage facilities must be built to store some of the generated electricity for later use. Currently, various battery and other technologies are being investigated for large-scale electricity storage.

Batteries deteriorate over time, and must eventually be discarded and replaced. We all know that due to their high toxicity levels, lead-acid batteries, which we have in our vehicles, cannot be simply placed in trash bags and dumped anywhere when it comes time to dispose of them. They must be taken to designated places where they can be properly processed and either recycled or discarded. The increasingly popular lithium-ion batteries are said to be less toxic, but a lot more expensive than the lead-acid type. Other storage technologies such as compressed air energy and pumped hydro systems require substantial amounts of capital to build. So, there are numerous costs that must be incurred in order to convert the sun’s “free” energy into electricity. Those costs have to be appropriately quantified, before any meaningful comparisons could be made with electricity generated from other sources.

For many decades, Ghana failed to put an appropriate price on the water that was used to generate electricity at the Akosombo and other hydroelectric power stations. Consequently, electricity tariffs were set artificially low; that is partly why, over the last several years, those tariffs have had to be increased by double and sometimes triple-digit percentages annually, just to bring them to cost-reflective levels.

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Even if solar power ultimately became a lot cheaper than all other forms of power, it would still be unwise for Ghana to rely almost exclusively on it for its electricity needs, as some people seem to advocate. Any properly designed electricity grid should have a well-diversified mix of fuels for power generation. Supply disruptions happen all the time in the energy markets, so grid operators should always have alternate fuels at their disposal in order to keep the lights on. Price volatility is another reason why it is prudent to have a diversified fuel mix; just because one fuel is the cheapest now does not mean things will always stay that way. US President Barack Obama has said on numerous occasions that he favors an all-of-the-above energy policy, meaning that no fuel should be excluded from the country’s energy mix.

Although coal is a dirty fuel, there are many reasons why a majority of developed countries have relied on it for power generation for so long. It provides, at relatively low cost, the baseload power that is required for industrialization. No other fuel, perhaps other than nuclear energy, can match coal in this regard. As with everything in life, costs must always therefore be weighed against benefits.

Concerns about the impact of carbon and other emissions from coal power plants on the environment are legitimate, and everything practically possible must be done to lessen the world’s dependence on coal for power generation. However, the transition to renewable energy sources will take place over a long period of time, and even then, coal will never be completely eliminated from the global power generation fuel mix because diversification will forever remain a prudent strategy.

According to data provided by the World Bank, China, for instance, generates a substantial portion of its electricity from coal. The country’s current total installed generation capacity is reported to be over 1,300 gigawatts, of which approximately 67% is coal-fired generation. It is not unfair to ask that China, and countries like the US, UK and other rich ones that also generate substantial amounts of electricity from coal, and can afford to accelerate the switch to renewable energy sources, do so and thereby provide some room to make it possible for countries like Ghana to diversify their mix of fuels.

To put things in perspective, if each of the 54 African countries built one 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant, that would be a total capacity of 54 gigawatts for the entire continent, which translates to just about six percent of the amount of coal-fired plant capacity that China alone currently has. Only a handful of African countries currently use coal for electricity production, and the numbers are nowhere near what China and the rest of the industrialized world use. For Ghana, that single 1,000-megawatt plant would dramatically improve the country’s economic prospects, while representing a drop in the ocean, relative to coal consumption in other parts of the world.

The goal in Ghana must be to find affordable ways to provide electricity to power the economy and provide jobs for the millions of unemployed and under-employed youth. Continued reliance on power barges and floating storage and regasification units (FSRUs) to supplement the country’s generation capacity is an extremely expensive way to do it. That would almost guarantee the continuation of the annual double and triple-digit percentage increases in tariffs for the foreseeable future.   

A recent Washington Post article talked about the record 17.5 million vehicles that were sold in the US alone in 2015. Of that number, a significant proportion was reportedly made up of large trucks and SUVs, which consume a lot of gasoline and other polluting fuels. This preference for larger vehicles increases whenever gasoline prices decline sharply, as they have in the US in recent months. This shows that when it comes to caring for the environment, many of us don’t exactly practice what we preach. Ghanaian policymakers must therefore think pragmatically, as they seek ways to solve the power shortage problem that has stunted the country’s economic growth for so long.

For many of the poor and most vulnerable citizens in Ghana, chronic power shortage is not merely an inconvenience; it is something that threatens their very existence. We should worry about their plight, and adopt the quickest and most cost-effective ways to bring about an improvement in the situation, and thereby relieve some of their misery. That is why the plan to build a modest coal power plant in the country, which is something that should have been done a long time ago, must be applauded. It should not instead be condemned so reflexively.

The author is the manager of retail power marketing at UGI Energy Services, LLC, a diversified energy services firm in Pennsylvania, USA. He was previously a financial analyst at UGI. Prior to UGI, he worked as a senior electrical engineer at Caterpillar, Inc. in the US. He holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in Indiana, USA, and an MBA from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, USA. 
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