The future for Africa is solar, solar, solar. So let’s soar upwards and bring it down.
As I write, the Volta River Authority (VRA) of Ghana (which generates electricity from the Akosombo Dam) has begun to reduce the power it supplies to the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) which distributes power throughout the country because the water level in our main dam at Akosombo has fallen below the operating level. The result is that some people are deprived of electricity for about two days a week.
This is at least the third time in recent years that Ghana has been partially plunged into darkness because of a low water level at the Akosombo Dam. It is evident that the drought that depletes the water in the Volta Lake and makes it impossible to produce full power has come to stay. Like most African countries, Ghana’s droughts are becoming cyclical and will worsen, as global warming increases in intensity.
The VRA has acquired thermal plants which supplement the power output from our hydro-electric sources. But, unfortunately, thermal power has become uneconomic, due to the phenomenal increases in the price of petroleum. (It is calculated that the oil price has gone up by 300% in the past 36 months alone.)
True, we are about to be supplied with natural gas from the West African Gas Pipeline from Nigeria, through Benin and Togo, to Ghana. But that’s no long-term solution to Ghana’s problem, because the price of liquefied natural gas always rises in consonance with increases in the price of petroleum on the international market. In the circumstances, it is time the Ghana government worked in concert with other similarly-placed African countries to safeguard a relatively cheap source of power for us in the future. And the only solution is to go solar on a huge scale.
Of course, this is more easily said than done. We need a huge outlay of capital to go solar, for the technology is new, even in the scientifically-advanced countries, and everything new tends to be very expensive. But I think we can make a start, and if we do, it will pay us dividends.
Let us remind ourselves: If President Kwame Nkrumah had not had the courage to go all out and make the Volta River Project the cornerstone of the development of Ghana, where would we be today? With the price of petroleum having topped $70 per barrel, where would we find the money to buy petroleum to fire the thermal stations on which we would have been relying?
Ghana and other African countries enjoy abundant sunshine all the year round. This sunshine goes to waste every second, every minute, every hour, every day, and every month of every year. We’ve just got to tame it – just as we tamed the Volta River and prevented it from flowing uselessly into the sea.
When it comes to financing, we should try and involve a country like China, which now commands enormous amounts of foreign reserves, and most important, also has enormous potential for using solar energy, to join hands with us. China is growing so rapidly economically that it will run out of power at some stage, despite the great strides it has made in the generation of hydro-electric power in recent years. Its recent triumphant commissioning of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which produces 18 gigawatts of electricity, will not close its eyes to the long-term uses of solar power.
For, as China’s late Premier, Chou En-Lai, once told a group of African visitors, including myself: “We Chinese people think in terms of thousands of years!” Now, China is busy looking for alternative sources of energy supplies, for you cannot place too much of your land surface under water without suffering in some way, either through disturbing the natural climate, or social disruption on an enormous scale. The Akosombo Dam placed 3% of Ghana’s land surface under water permanently and displaced 80,000 people from their traditional homes in which their communities had lived for hundreds of years!
Solar energy is an idea “whose time has come”, and if President John Kufuor, who is a consummate diplomat, wants his period of ruling Ghana to be remembered with fondness by the people, he would be well-advised to embark on accomplishing it immediately.
First of all, he could appoint a small, tightly-knit committee to work out the modalities for carrying out the initial diplomatic contacts that would enable the president to tour those facilities abroad. There are so many countries that are willing to be galvanised into action over global warming, and if Ghana were to take the lead in making a case for international, multilateral cooperation in using the clean technology that solar energy represents, it would get support.
So, President Kufuor, your people are once again crying in the dark – just as they did in 1983-84. Please do not leave their cries unheard. And please remember, also, at the personal level, that one day, long after you have retired, your grandchildren will wake up in the middle of the night and “see” themselves in total darkness and ask you plaintively, “Grandpa, why are we in darkness”? Whereupon, you might reply: “It’s because we have no power!” And they would say, “But Grandpa, you were once the president. Why didn’t you do something to prevent this”? If you’re only able to shout at them: “Go back to sleep!”, be sure, Mr President, that they will despise you in their young hearts forever.
I have taken the trouble to discuss the solar energy idea with a couple of people involved in the energy industry. One of them practically laughed at me and said, hardly hiding the mockery in his voice: “Ghanaians only want to plan for alternative sources of energy when they actually have an energy crisis on their hands. But you should realise that at such a time, the preoccupation of everyone in the industry is to alleviate the prevailing energy shortage.” You cannot fault that. It must be irritating for someone managing load-shedding, with politicians constantly on his back making irrational demands of him, to begin thinking about the energy situation in, say, 2012.
The other person I discussed the matter with had a rather more practical approach. He said the government should abolish all taxes on solar products and thereby make the use of solar power so cheap that people will go out of their way to fit solar panels to their new homes, or even change their old homes over to solar power usage, simply because of the cost incentive.
I endorse the idea, but I don’t think market-induced solutions to problems like the shortage of energy will work. Even if it does, its effect will be necessarily slow. What we need is a full-blown campaign. If we launched a well-planned solar energy utilisation campaign, aimed at educating people about the possibilities that currently exist for using solar energy, and then, in a blaze of publicity, announced the potential savings in money terms that could be made by using solar energy, we would get more people interested.
We should start with a huge solar energy conference to which we would invite NEPAD, the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and all the solar energy institutes we can find in the developed countries. We could throw them a challenge – instead of just coming to make “paper presentations”, each of them should bring along a proposal for a practical solar energy project which would be established in Ghana as a working proposition and left as a prototype that could be replicated elsewhere in Africa generally.
I am sure we can get funding for such a conference from some of the foundations that are seriously interested in preserving the future of mankind. I can immediately think of three that would like to offer assistance, if approached correctly: the Gates Foundation; the Soros Foundation and the Turner Foundation. Even the old war horses, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, might come in, because the idea of tapping Africa’s enormous resources of sunshine to make life better for every African – and eventually to export energy to the developed world, as that part of the world runs short of petroleum and natural gas – is so obvious and exciting.
I am afraid my belief that the Ghana government can be made to take an interest in any of these ideas is not shared by everyone. Another person I consulted said: “As for chasing the government, I think they still don’t get it. They are ready to pump money into subsidising VALCO, but won’t make it easy for households to reduce their dependence on the Electricity Company of Ghana. Go figure it out.” Well, I can’t figure it out. Can anyone in the government please kindly explain this to us? Another friend said: “You know, I don’t think the government has to spend that much money. It’s really just a financing problem. For example, qualified households could obtain low interest financing of solar usage from banks, backed by a government guarantee.”
I think that’s an absolutely brilliant idea. The government wouldn’t have to dole out any money itself, which should please the IMF and the World Bank. Come to think of it, has the World Bank undertaken a project for converting African countries with plenty of sunshine and no money to buy petroleum and gas from the use of petro-carbon energy to solar energy?
The World Bank used to take such issues seriously and I hope it has done some studies which could serve as a stepping stone to countries in Africa that show an eagerness to move ahead with planning for solar energy usage in a big way.
Meanwhile, I urge all the Ghanaian stakeholders – the ECG, the mines, VALCO, the burgeoning solar industry, the economists, the Manufacturers’ Association and all organised bodies whose operations are being hampered by the current electricity load-shedding — to make their voices heard on the subject of solar energy utilisation. For it does not bear repeating that solar energy is the easiest, cleanest, and most sensible way of assuring for ourselves, unlimited energy supplies in the near future.