Ghana seeks new dawn for struggling power sector

Nana Akufo-Addo (File: AFP)
Nana Akufo-Addo (File: AFP)

Accra - Ghana's new government is looking to fix a crippling power crisis with a complete overhaul of its deficit-ridden energy sector including a boost for solar energy.

Intermittent power supply issues have dogged the west African nation since the 1980s and became particularly acute in the last five years - although there has been some improvement recently.

President Nana Akufo-Addo blames his predecessor John Dramani Mahama whose energy policies, he said last month, had led to "gargantuan debt".

Ghana's energy sector was crushed by an accumulated debt of $2.4bn, he said, as the cost of buying in fuel, paying energy suppliers and running inefficient state companies spiralled out of control.

Its bad financial situation "constitutes the single major hurdle to Ghanaians enjoying reliable and affordable electricity supply", he said last month in his first State of the Nation address.

Improvements in the provision of power were seen in the run-up to December's election but Akufo-Addo said the challenges within the sector were far from over and high costs were a major stumbling block.

Akufo-Addo's New Patriotic Party (NPP) has now begun to develop a new electricity masterplan, which also includes possibly listing state-owned power generation and supply companies on the stock exchange.

Such asset sales would not only move the underperforming utilities off the government's books, but private ownership may well make them more efficient, experts say.

This year's budget also included ambitious plans for renewable energy to provide two to three percent of supply to the national grid and, in addition, develop 38 000 solar-powered homes in "off-grid" communities.

 Here comes the sun 

Harnessing the power of Africa's most abundant free resource - the sun - to provide electricity has long been a challenge for governments across the continent.

In Ghana there are hopes that more people will sign up to a 500-watt solar panel scheme started under Mahama for homes and businesses. The panels come free, but takers must still foot start-up costs of around $1 500.

The Energy Commission wants to see 200 000 such systems installed, but the scheme's coordinator, Kenneth Appiah, says since it was launched in February last year only 409 units have been installed.

Among those who have received the panels - each installation is worth about $450 - is accountancy lecturer Daniel Nkrumah-Afyeefi.

He said the programme was a good starting point to get his home off the grid and he planned to add more panels to lower food refrigeration costs and avoid hot, sleepless nights.

"When you live in a place like Accra and you need to store food items, when power runs off and on like that some of the things get spoiled," he told AFP.

"You tend to be buying as and when you eat, and that ends up increasing your cost of purchasing food items."

Business suffers 

Ghana has seen four different power crises since 1982 due to low water levels in the country's dams, said Ishmael Ackah, head of policy at the Africa Centre for Energy Policy.

In 1997, the country began using thermal energy to complement hydro-electric power but struggles to keep its power stations going at full capacity, as the economy grows and demand increases.

Nigeria has been a major supplier of gas and oil but that has been erratic, as Ghana has struggled to pay its bills.

Scheduled rolling electricity blackouts to ration power - known locally as "dumsor" - have in recent years had a knock-on effect on businesses and productivity, and led to street demonstrations.

A 2015 report by Ghana's Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research indicated the country was losing some $2.2m a day because of the energy shortfall.

The government is hoping domestic oil and gas supply from offshore fields will help cut the energy deficit, alongside solar, for the country's 27 million people.

Energy minister Boakye Agyarko has said he wants all government departments to be solar powered and vowed to "step on the accelerator and make sure we do even more than we are doing now".

A British-based firm, Blue Energy, is hoping to build a huge solar farm in western Ghana by December this year, with a capacity of up to 155 megawatts.

Ackah said there is hope that solar power's share in the overall energy mix will soar by the end of the decade.

"It is 0.5% in 2017. We are supposed to get 10% in the next three years," he said.

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