Will Ghana stay dark, go coal – or go green?


As governments, civil society organisations and citizens gear up for the critical climate talks in Paris this December, there has been growing international support for significant national commitments to phase-out fossil fuels and make a just transition towards a low-carbon economy.

But if “the age of carbon is over”, why is Ghana poised to open the country’s first-ever coal-powered electricity plant? The simple answer is dumsor, the local name given to the chronic power outages that have wreaked havoc on the Ghanaian economy for the last three years.

The causes are manifold: low levels of rainfall; poor maintenance; the erratic, occasionally non-existent, supply of Nigerian gas coming through the West African Gas Pipeline (WAGP); and government debts preventing the procurement of the necessary quantities of oil and gas.

And its impact is huge. According to research by the Ghana Growth and Development Forum, power shortages have shaved between 2-6 per cent off the country’s GDP, a devastating blow to what was, until recently, one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.

“Over 13,800 jobs have been lost, and 16 companies have closed their businesses. And that’s only in 2015 from January to June,” says Solomon Kotei, general secretary of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU).

With galloping inflation and a nose-diving currency, Ghana resorted to signing a US$918m bailout from the IMF earlier this year, in an attempt to stabilise the economy.

But the introduction of new austerity measures, in addition to the energy crisis, is being felt at every level of society, but particularly amongst the 88 per cent of working Ghanaians who make their living in the informal economy.

Samuel Mensah, a barber in Accra, knows all about dumsor. It’s dusk in the Ghanaian capital but as he waits for customers to show up, he sits in the dark.

“If somebody comes, I’ll turn on the generator,” he tells Equal Times, referring to the costly, noisy and environmentally-unfriendly fuel-powered generators used by those who can afford them to circumnavigate the blackouts. “Till that moment, I’ll save the fuel.”

Opposite his shop, Angela sits outside her little sewing booth with crossed arms. With no money to buy a generator she is at the mercy of the load-shedding schedule of the beleaguered Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG).

The availability of light in Ghana should follow a regime of 24 hours off and 12 hours on, “but in practice, we don’t know when we are gonna have lights,” laments Angela. “It’s very bad for my business and for the work of everybody”.


’What options do we have except coal?’

Although as many as 40 per cent of Ghanaians, particularly those living in rural areas, rely on traditional biomass and waste such as firewood for their primary energy needs, the energy crisis affects everyone.

Ghana has an installed capacity of 2800 megawatts (MW) and, at its peak, demand for electricity is around 2100MW. But currently, Ghana only manages to produce 1500MW of electricity, leaving the country with a deficit of around 600MW.

Hydro-electricity is responsible for about 52 per cent of Ghana’s power, with geo-thermal plants powered by oil and gas making up the shortfall. The contribution of renewable energies such as solar and wind power is currently negligible at less than 0.1 per cent.

In response to the current energy crisis, the government of President John Drahami Mahama is exploring the construction of a 700MW coal plant. The deal is not yet finalised, but the plant could be realised by 2017, at the cost of US$1.5 billion, by Sunon Asogli, a joint venture between China’s Shenzhen Energy Group and Ghana’s Asogli Power.

Climate campaigners have criticised the plans (which are still under debate), expressing concerns about the plant’s environmental impact. “We are worried by the air pollution and the effects that the ashes will have on the land. The health cost will outweigh the energy benefit,” says Nyarko Acheampong Michael, co-director of Ghana Youth Environmental Movement.

But for the Minister of Power, Dr Kwabena Donkor, there is no other cheap option for power generation. “We don’t have enough gas – hence our decision to utilise coal,” he recently told reporters. “We agree with the green revolution, but we are in a context where we have a negligible carbon footprint, and we have the advantage of coming late to coal, so we can apply the best clean technology”.

In many ways, the country’s aspiration to “pursue a low carbon development growth path” seems to be at logger heads with the proposals to tackle its energy needs.

To give an example of this tension, despite becoming an oil and gas producer in 2010, Ghana adopted the Renewable Energy Act in 2011, which included a feed-in tariff scheme and a renewable energy purchase obligation.

Subsequently, the government established an ambitious target to ensure 10 per cent of power generation from renewables sources by 2020, as well as a 30 per cent increase in sustainable rural electrification.

The government has also increased the levy on petroleum products and electricity to US$0.02 per litre/per kWh respectively. The revenue will be used to establish a Renewable Energy Fund with the aim of installing more than 200,000 solar power panels, saving an estimated 200MW of electricity everyday.

But at the same time, the government has also promised to increase the total production of electricity from 2800MW to 5000MW by 2015, a target it has now extended to 2016.

Wisdom Ahiataku-Togobo, director of the Renewable Energy Unit at the Ministry of Energy tells Equal Times that a growing population with ever-increasing energy needs leaves the Ghanaian government with few choices.

“What options do we have beside hydro? The only other affordable option is gas from the WAGP and gas from our Jubilee Fields. But the WAGP has never been reliable and the Jubilee Fields cannot produce enough gas to meet our demand.”

As estimated in the Energy Commission Energy Outlook for 2015, the national gas supply should produce around 250mmcfd (million cubic feet per day), against a total demand of approximately 500mmcfd.

But since Ghana’s gas supply is currently insufficient Ahiataku-Togobo concludes: “We are left with only two options for cheap energy: coal and nuclear”.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the government says it is taking the best option possible.

But for Benjamin Boakye, deputy executive director at the Accra-based Africa Centre for Energy Policy (ACEP), this position is ill-advised.

“We don’t have any regulation on coal and there is the danger that politicians will connive with power companies, in the guise of deploying clean coal technology, to bring in a decommissioned coal plant that will pollute the environment,” he said.

Charles Kofi Owusu, project officer for KITE, a leading local NGO advocating for green energy in Ghana, agrees. He is calling for a more “holistic approach” to resolving the energy conundrum: “I know we are in a crisis, and we need cheap energy, but I do not support the way [the government] is going about it. When it comes to the environment, we will never be too careful.”

But Ahiataku-Togobo believes that Ghana has to start from somewhere. “Countries that have developed their own industries started their coal industry from scratch. If it means that we have to develop everything from scratch as well, then so be it. And let’s not forget that 700MW will only account for 0.01 per cent of the global C02 emissions.”


Towards a green future

So is Ghana walking towards a green energy path? For Ahiataku-Togobo, the answer is yes. He believes that by introducing coal-power energy, Ghana is helping to boost renewables. “Having a stable energy base is fundamental to be able to add renewable sources to the energy mix. That would actually help us to reach our 2020 target.”

But the World Bank does not share his optimism. In its 2013 report on the Ghanaian energy sector it noted that Ghana only produces minimal amounts of energy by solar, and that wind is also at an early stage of development. “Thus,” the report concludes, “the target of 10 per cent for 2020 is unlikely to be achieved.”

And while considering the impact of coal on Ghana’s green gains, the wider impact of climate change is even clearer.

“Climate change has been affecting Ghana, especially in the north, with droughts and flooding,” Kingsley Ofei Nkansah, the general secretary of the General Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU) told Equal Times, “so we wish to be as committed as possible to a green energy path.”

GAWU, which has about 50,000 members, has seen many of its farmers affected by climate change. It recently started to secure climate change clauses in its collective bargaining agreements with large employers, such as palm oil companies and rubber plantations.

But for Ofei Nkansah, much more needs to be done to help Ghana’s poorest and most vulnerable, who are bearing the brunt of climate change.

“We have been looking at ways to develop agriculture to become more sustainable and climate smart. We are looking at renewable energy. We are looking at various acclimatisation measures like reforestation. But as a workers movement, we are still very concerned about how climate change is impacting on income and job security. At a national and international level, there must be a fair share of the burden of transformation and transition. Climate justice cannot just be a slogan. It must be supported at a national and global level.”


This reportage was made possible by a reporting grant from Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.