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Out of the dark: Ghana's power problems

The Akosombo Hydroelectric Power Station, Ghana The Akosombo Hydroelectric Power Station, Ghana Eunika Sopotnicka
03 Dec
As a dried-up dam starts to refill, and a push towards cleaner, renewable energy gets underway, many are still asking if Ghana’s chronic power cuts will ever come to an end?

It is with nervous relief that Ghana is finally embracing an improvement to its ongoing electricity crisis. For the past five years, the country has been plagued with blackouts. In that time, small businesses have crumbled, families have relied on costly and polluting home generators, and, in hospitals, babies have been born by the glowing, blueish light of smartphones.

The crisis came mostly from a lack of supply. Ghana’s strong, growing economy, along with a rapidly urbanising population, has meant that demand for electricity has increased by 300 per cent in the past 50 years. To make matters worse, the supply that should have been available simply wasn’t there. Gas usually imported from Nigeria has been unreliable, thermal plants have not delivered on promises and, crucially, its prodigal Akosombo Dam has been running dry.

The solution must be to diversify the power, with an emphasis on solar and wind

‘The Akosombo Dam is the largest source of power in Ghana,’ says Dr Ishmael Ackah, Head of Policy at the Africa Centre for Energy Policy. ‘It makes up 27 per cent of Ghana’s capacity.’ Built in 1965, the dam was celebrated as a triumph of engineering and a symbol of the country’s recent independence. Lately, however, Akosombo has struggled. In 2015, six unusually dry months meant that its turbines had to work with water well below its minimum operating level. Lack of rainfall, few alternatives and high demand became a three-headed problem that kept Ghana in the dark.

‘The water level has risen again but the availability of gas continues to be a challenge,’ says Ackah. ‘The solution must be to diversify the power, with an emphasis on solar and wind.’ By 2020, the government hopes to generate ten per cent of its electricity from renewables, excluding the large amount already coming from hydro. More than just an environmentally noble solution, renewables would be more practical for Ghana. ‘They would help promote self-sufficiency in energy supply,’ explains Ackah. Plus, they can work off-grid: in the past year the government has dispatched 50,000 home solar systems and lanterns to rural communities.

This was published in the December 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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