This article has been prompted by a number of significant events within the past few weeks, following the announcement on the use of coal to generate electricity, in the heat of our Energy Crisis. Shortly after that news was broken, there were nearly-simultaneous feature programmes on two different radio/television networks, Radio France Internationale (RFI) and local Peace FM. While the former treated the generation of electricity from Solar Energy in the Sénégambia region of Casamance, the latter hosted a company that has installed solar-panels, in place of conventional windows, in an office in Tema.
When it was announced by the Ministry of Mines and Energy, that Ghana was going to turn to the use of coal in generating electric power, some people were very dismayed and skeptical. The immediate reaction was that we were retrogressing in our handling of the power crisis confronting the Nation. The official explanation, assurances and justification for the proposal or decision stressed the fact that coal has a lot of good properties or attributes in the production of energy. Yet, that proposal seemed to be a contravention of a recently-ratified Agreement adopted by member-states of the United Nations, in late April this year, to reduce Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emission into the atmosphere, world-wide.
To fall on coal as a critical factor in electricity production in this country was like taking us back to the Industrial Revolution era of about 250 years ago. It is an undisputed fact that coal was an important catalyst that powered the steam engines which promoted the great strides in Industrial growth in Europe and, later, the United States of America. That was a period characterized by inventions that turned the tedious operations on the farms and manufacturing establishments into less-unpleasant chores.
In our pervading energy crisis, we have had to try almost all the types of energy sources and migrated from diesel-powered engines to hydro-electricity, generated by the Volta River Authority (VRA) from the Akosombo Dam, for over forty years so far. Thermal and other plants have been built from State resources and individual initiatives (e.g. Asogli), at certain vantage locations to boost production and distribution of electricity. Gas and power barges have also been on hand, leaving atomic energy, wind and tidal waves on the waiting-list to be exploited, yet to-date, we are still in the doldrums. Meanwhile, the abundant heat energy from the Tropical sun we enjoy, nearly all the year round, has been virtually left untapped and, thereby, wasted in this respect.
The Akosombo Dam had provided the Nation with hydro-electric (or ‘white’) power, with excess for export beyond our borders, since 1974. The problem of unstable electric power has been attributed to a number of factors. The reduction in the water volume in the Volta, which feeds the Akosombo Dam, was first experienced in the 1980s. The universal Climate Change characterized by continued long droughts caused some of the tributaries of the Volta to dry up. Reports also indicated that in the catchment area of the Volta, two dams had been sited upstream, by neighbouring Burkina Faso.
The need for major maintenance was also signaled about twenty years ago, and a number of measures taken by VRA included closing down some of the turbines which generate the electricity. As a result, for about a decade and a half, we have had to experience aggravating situations of power shortage. Measures marshalled by the utility provider, such as ‘load-shedding’, power-saving devices like low-energy bulbs, techniques and schedules included the infamous ‘Dum-sor’ or a series of frustrating power outages at odd times. All such efforts have yielded no positive, satisfactory results.
Individuals who could afford electricity –generating plants have turned our residential areas into extension of noisy industrial areas, especially at night, when there are power outages. The gaseous emissions pollute the air, and some neighbours have reported respiratory problems resulting from inhaling such polluted air. Fires have broken out from overheated generators and related accidents have also maimed people when fueling their generators. The high cost of fueling the sets may not be a big deal for affluent ones who can afford them, but the toll remains alarming to the average worker.
The technical justification in favour of coal has received criticism on the basis of the environmental implications. Whatever the attributes of coal in output of electric energy, the inconveniences are quite unbearable. Seriously, the officials who are clamouring for the use of coal should be careful not to go for obsolete equipment in the course of implementation. Let us turn around and see the abandoned Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) power houses with their diesel engines, deafeningly filling the atmosphere with their thick smoke.
This brings to mind some common experiences when the Ghana Railway Corporation (GRC) operated a large fleet of steam locomotive engines in the 1950-60s. The coal engines of the early years were very cumbersome to operate. The imported industrial coal had to be conveyed from the ships that had brought the consignments to locations or ‘depots’ at the harbour and later to various locations in designated railway stations along the network. Loaders manually filled the buckets or compartments on the locomotives, while ‘Boiler-makers’ stood by to ignite the coal in the furnaces on the trains. They had to produce certain levels of steam before the heavy engines could move. Then, ‘Firemen’ kept stoking the fire, by shoveling heaps of coal into the furnace, throughout the journeys. The heat in the engine rooms was very unbearable for the Enginemen some of whom developed hearing impairment and other physical disorders from the noisy, very hot work environment.
Passengers and passers-by were not spared either. They had their fair share of the discomfort from tiny particles from the thick smoke that fell in their eyes and/or on their dresses. At the end of a journey, the engine–heads were parked for some time for the hot ashes to cool down before being dislodged from the boiler. Progressively, the coal bunkers were later converted into diesel tanks on the bulky engines. Those were systematically changed into diesel engine-heads and, ultimately ‘electric’ ones were also introduced.
Ghana is advantaged to be located in the Tropics where there is constant sunshine almost every day of the year, even during rainy seasons. My long-time friend, Harry Falconer, writing in the Daily Graphic a few years back, was of the opinion that, “…our development of solar energy (should be) only a matter of course. But is it?” One cannot agree with him the more that,”…in order to benefit from our natural environment, for our survival and comfort, we have to be resourceful…otherwise.., in the midst of our abundant human and natural resources, we shall continue to grow poorer and poorer before we finally perish…”
Well, if any consideration is being given to an alternative source to hydro-electricity, in this 21st century of high technological and electro-technical advancement, why not pursue the Solar Energy Project which is located in the Ministry of Mines and Energy? It can be observed that street lights have been replaced with Solar panels (Photo Voltaic Cells) and accessories. These can be seen in parts of the national capital and main roads leading to some Districts, perhaps as a pilot scheme.
Unfortunately, it is saddening to find that some irresponsible people have vandalized the installations on busy roads like N! Highway and the Tema Motorway!! This kind of negative, sabotaging acts are criminal. Until such selfish behaviours stop, we shall gradually sink into retrogression and eventual stagnation, in our efforts to become a ‘Developed’ country.
As compared to other sources of energy, sunshine in our part of the globe is reliable, sustainable, free, and, above all, environment-friendly. Thus, development of solar energy can reduce our dependence on oil and provide a cheap source of energy. In the long run. The only initial capital input goes into the installation of the panels and associated accessories. Maintenance involves charging of the batteries and flushing the filters on the panels with clean water.
Coincidentally, Radio France Internationle (RFI) on 18th May, 2016, did a documentary on a small community near the Casamance Dam in Senegal, which has suffered similar fate of our Akosombo Dam. A private initiative within the past ten years, to generate electricity from solar energy, has become a unique opportunity for the villages along the river to rely on solar power for domestic purposes and street-lighting, without relying on the national grid.
The solar units were assembled by a private company which operates and supervises the maintenance. The residents subscribe to the facility through pre-paid meters at affordable rates. They are satisfied about the reliability, utility cost, easy use and maintenance.
The project had attracted the support of a benevolent individual who has set up a Foundation to replicate the experience in other communities through tailor-made solar energy systems. Jobs have thereby been created for the local artisans and youth in the beneficiary communities, notably the installation of poles and maintenance.
Strangely enough, panelists on one of our local radio stations, Peace FM, also discussed Solar Energy in its early morning show the next day (19th May). It appears the signs are more than enough to draw our attention to the free, clean and sustainable energy from the sun, which we have taken for granted for far too long. It is about time we integrated solar energy panels in our architectural designs, just as we now make provision for water reservoirs and power plants or generators. Houses should be designed to incorporate solar panels as windows and doors.
Flat glass window and door fixtures have become very fashionable in buildings lately, in the face of inconsistent power supply. People are paying exorbitant tariffs for electricity, on account of such flamboyant lifestyles involving the need to fix air conditioners in certain parts of the house. The way forward is to revolutionize our architectural designing, instead of slipping back into discontinued procedures and practices of three centuries ago. The panels can also be integrated in the roofing, or placed on top of existing roofs. The units may be dedicated to gadgets in specific sections of the house, to cater for such equipment as televisions, radios and/or general lighting, depending on the size of the building.
According to the RFI report, researchers in France in the past ten years have indicated that PVC systems, including the nickel batteries, are water-proof, heat-resistant and virtually maintenance-free. Use of low-energy LED bulbs adds to the economic advantages of solar energy usage. The only setback in the use of the solar panels or Photo Voltaic Cells is common dust. But the answer lies in flushing the water-proof filters with ordinary water, and they continue to perform effectively.
In conclusion, it is pertinent to remind ourselves of our commitments to attain certain goals and objectives under the United Nations Millennium Challenge Goals (MCGs), e.g. “affordable and sustainable sources of energy”, and the follow-up to ‘COP21Paris’ Agreement on reduction in Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emission into the atmosphere.
Coal is not a renewable nor sustainable source of energy. If we promote its use in its raw state, we would be working at cross-purposes with the objectives aimed at safeguarding the Ecosystem or protecting the Ozone layer which prevents ultra-violet rays from reaching the surface of the earth. Climate Change is real and we should not be seen as contributing to it, in any way, either directly or indirectly. We need to comply with the pledges we readily agree to uphold in union with the community of Nations.
Ghana stands to gain from harvesting the abundant sunshine to produce electricity at affordable costs for consumers. The efforts at promoting Solar Energy for electricity should be vigorously pursued. The other critical concern is that we should be very cautious not to procure abandoned technology and obsolete machinery for the purpose. The expenditure for coal-operated machines should be made in favour of competitive, comparably better and current technology.
The seeming foot-dragging in tapping free, environment-friendly Solar Energy from Nature should go hand-in-hand with progressive policies, laws and action-oriented programmes in the interest of the broad section of the population.
Negative attitudes towards State property and assignments frustrate our march forward. Let us aspire after, and help to build an orderly, peaceful and beautiful environment for ourselves now and leave a plausible heritage for the future generations.
HARNESS SOLAR ENERGY, NOT COAL!!