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The ‘Dumsor’ blackouts may provide the perfect catalyst for an energy landscape in Ghana

It happens every day in Ghana. The air conditioning cuts out and there is darkness. In Australia, we would be scrambling for torches and telling our kids to not panic; walking outside to see if the neighbours had lost power too. But to Ghanaians, it’s nothing new and quite expected. A few seconds later, a beep and the sound of large diesel engines starting up. Power comes back and the air conditioning comes on - for those who can afford a generator, anyway. This is the ‘Dumsor’, or ‘off-on’, (#dumsor) which is the local name for the rolling black outs I experienced in Accra and Kumasi, two of Ghana’s major cities while I was conducting agricultural research on a project with our lovely ThinkPlace Kenya studio.

Where last year these blackouts were a few hours per day, people are now experiencing 12 hours or whole days with no power. The cost for Ghana’s hotels, businesses, stores, and homes is huge. They pay more than Australians for grid electricity per kilowatt hour, and then usually the same amount again plus extra for diesel to run their generators, not to mention the purchase, ‘service fees’ plus parts charged by the generator companies, and the hassle of getting and storing diesel. For a developing economy, this is crippling, and no power means hospitals, schools and other services struggle all the more.

But being the optimistic renewable energy-loving person that I am, this is very interesting for me, because Ghana might just come out of this with a more resilient, distributed and locally generated power network than our centralised energy system in Australia. By having a crisis in base load power, Ghana does not have the anxiety we have about shifting away from an existing centralised power distribution model that mostly works. Just to seal their own fate, Ghana’s major power utility has somehow increased prices by 20% in the last six months while mostly delivering service for 12 hours or less per day.

The huge cost of energy in Ghana is seeing a massive interest in cutting bills through energy efficiency and private generation. I was fortunate enough to discuss this with Jorgen Nielsen, CEO of European consultancy PSS Energy Group, over a few evenings’ ciders after our respective days’ work. He described the improvements he’s helping Ghanaian companies with to achieve energy stability and independence. Mostly these are through improvements in lighting and space cooling/heating, plus private investment in generation capacity, mainly through solar panels. Ghana’s gold mines are looking at more efficient modern motors to drive fans, pumps and other machinery, supplemented by on-site solar. Hotels and petrol stations find that changing their lights to LEDs and fitting their roofs and carparks with solar panels will save them more than half, and sometimes 80%, of their energy costs. For a large building, the investment can pay back in a few years and is a tidy money maker beyond that for the 20+ years life of the systems and improvements. This is with no government subsidies. 

When nothing works, everything is an opportunity

In Australia, we wait for a major upgrade of our electricity grid to become a ‘smart grid’ to better balance our usage and private generation. In Ghana, there is talk of bypassing the data component of the smart grid and linking appliances and generation using Ghana’s widespread mobile networks. In future, businesses with large scale air conditioning systems may opt to switch them off voluntarily for 30 minutes, with no noticeable change in temperature, to avoid blackouts in the region, controlled and facilitated by a simple mobile phone SIM card in control circuits. Solar panels placed on a house in a village may not need to be grid-connected, saving infrastructure costs, and an investor might deliver pay-per-use power services to the occupants using mobile money micro-payments. These are simple, novel and profitable ideas that would make a sun-drenched, grid-connected developed nation like Australia think twice about how we build our infrastructure for the future.

In Australia, we have a high standard of living, but perhaps we don’t adopt and change as much because things are ok, not terrible enough to really give us a big nudge. For me this has highlighted that in some ways, the opportunities for improvement in developing nations can be far more advanced than we may achieve in developed nations. I hope we see Ghana and other developing nations succeed in implementing new and forward thinking solutions. Perhaps we will see Ghanaian expertise in Australia in the future, showing us how they overcame their power issues and how power grid of the future works.

 

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Charlie Mere