Fighting Dumsor With Alternative Energy
By Caterina Clerici, Marisa Schwartz Taylor, and Kevin Taylor
The elders have a saying that “you cannot give up on God while there is still light.”
The entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa produces less energy than South Korea – despite having more than 18 times its population. Compared to the rest of the continent, Ghana has one of the highest rates of access to electricity.
However, in many instances the demand is often too high to be met. Breakdown of the machinery used to generate electricity – often faulty from the continuous interruptions of energy- lack of fuel to power them, or issues in distributions, are only some of the reasons for the shortages. Another key factor is climate change and the drought forcing Akosombo Dam – the country’s main source of energy for over half a century – to operate at minimum capacity.
In February 2015, President John Dramani Mahama, then entering his third year of elected office, delivered his State of the Nation Address, promising to ‘fix this energy challenge.’ Ghana, he remarked, had already witnessed a similar dumsor situation in 1983, 1998 and 2006/7.
Within the end of the year, the government established an energy sector levy and an energy debt recovery levy, commissioned Kpone Thermal Power Plant and paved the way for the most bizarre emergency solution to energy inefficiency to have yet docked – literally – to Ghanaian soil.
The Karadeniz Powership Aysegul Sultan power barge is a floating power plant with a surface bigger than a football field and six turbines generating an average of 210 MW, around 11% of Ghana’s total energy supply.
Stamped with a thick, black ‘Power of Friendship’ writing that covers various feet on one of its sides, the power barge sailed in from Turkey and moored into Tema harbor on November 27, 2015. Once its on-board high voltage substations were connected to the national grid, it immediately started delivering power – ten days after arrival.
It would have taken much longer to build a plant and put it on the ground, argued the Turkish and Ghanaian personnel of the barge during a tour of the facility in March. Plus, it’s cheaper than thermal plants: it runs on heavy fuel oil, which costs less than light crude oil, and has the option to run on natural gas in the future, depending on supply and fluctuation in international market prices.
The first of its kind in Africa – the Turkish company has powerships in Iraq, Lebanon, Indonesia, and only recently started one in Zambia – the “Power of Friendship for Ghana” project was met by a mix of skepticism and sarcasm by Ghanaians. Before its arrival, a radio station said the barge didn’t exist and called it a phantom ship. After it started operating, people argued that the government would spend too much money on a temporary fix instead of building more long-lasting and sustainable energy sources.
According to the company though, it could save Ghana $120 million a year, and another power barge is expected to call the country home next September: Karadeniz and the Electricity Company of Ghana have already a signed a 10-year contract, expecting the two powerships to produce 450MW of electricity.
“A day after Independence Day, still celebrating and having a good time?” Lexis Bill asks into the microphone, surrounded by a fortress of screens and tangled cables in the recording studio at Joy 99.7 FM in Accra.
The radio presenter, DJ and all-around celebrity, has a captivating, round voice, and expects no answers. Every day, his show ‘Drive Time’ keeps Ghanaians company from 3 to 8pm, usually while they’re stuck in traffic before, during, or after work.
“Well here’s something interesting: yesterday I was driving through town and I realized some parts didn’t have lights and some other parts did!” Bill continues. “We are excited that dumsor is getting better, now we are getting more power even though we are paying higher. So my question for you now is – would you rather have more light and pay more, or less light and pay like you were paying one year or two ago?”
The arrival of the power barge coincided with the ‘end’ of the dumsor era, officially called in late December 2015 – in time for the Christmas holiday. Power cuts have since occurred less and Ghanaians have been paying for slightly more stable electricity — sometimes.
“People try to cheat the system,” says Erasmus Baidoo, ECG’s Ashanti Regional Public Relations Officer. “They rather bypass the meter or they find a way to tamper with the meter so that instead of recording very accurately, the meter will not record at all. Or it will be giving wrong figures.”
According to Baidoo, only around 40 percent of ECG’s customers pay their bills voluntarily, without any prompting. Hence the company – which counts millions of dollars in debts, owed by the government – has had to come up with a way to chase customers to pay bills for a service that has been intermittent, at best, for years: prepaid meters. For now though, the solution is bringing more questions than answers.
“What about the 60 percent [of customers that don’t pay]? Are you going to arrest everybody? Will you deny them power because they have not paid their bills?”
A similar question — how to get cheap energy for everyone, even the ones who cannot afford paying those bills— is on the mind of Raymond Ayayee and Daniel Nashief, as they watch a golden liquid boil over in a separatory funnel, smoke twirling out of it.
“Tires can become diesel. I can get carbon black, which can be used in ink and paint. I can get heating gas […] and I can get the oil, which can be used as substitute to diesel. Which is ok,” rambles Nashief, a biochemist. Ayayee, a waste management consultant and Nashief’s business partner, frowns slightly, immediately catching himself and repairing to his usual confident look.
The warehouse where the two set up their DIY open-air lab to hold a demonstration is underneath the African Institute of Waste Management in East Legon. It’s on the opposite side of Accra — and a world away, past the mansions of Trasacco estates — from the burning tires of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah,’ the digital dump that has made the Agbogbloshie slum world famous in the past few years. Nashief and Ayayee are also burning tires, and all sorts of plastic waste, but with a goal: producing fuel from plastics.
“I’ve been doing plastic recycling back into plastics for two to three years,” says Ayayee. “I always keep asking myself what I can do differently from just getting plastics and turning it back into plastics. I want to turn it into something usable… something else.”
“Plastic is made of petroleum product. From a to z you get plastic. I can go back from z to a, reverse it,” explains Nashief. “Then my product is not going to go back inside the gutters. I’m using every single part of the plastic to do oil and gas, so there is nothing left …for you to to be dumped again.”
Since the duo met two years ago, they have successfully converted plastics — mainly water sachets, which can be found discarded on every street of the country — into naphtha, gasoline, kerosene, diesel and wax. All with the help of a well thought-out distillation process, a secret ingredient (the catalyst) and a lab mouse that gets quite jumpy when he smells chemicals that shouldn’t be there.
The petrol produced from plastics can be used in generators or in cars, while kerosene lights up lanterns and gas cookers in the villages when the electricity is out.
“The way I produce doesn’t cost much,” continues Nashief, “One liter of kerosene today is around 2GHS and I’m able to produce 1 liter of kerosene for 1.70 GHS. That is something for the village people. They will appreciate.”
A little over an hour outside of Accra, traffic permitting, and protected by a gate and a handful of armed guards, there’s dark blue field, stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s made of 89,760 solar panels.
The BXC Solar Plant in Ghana’s Central Region is the largest functioning solar farm in West Africa. Owned by a Chinese company, it started operating in February 2016, after two years of construction. It produces 20 megawatts of power, largely contributing to Ghana’s ambitious plan to reach a 10 percent renewables milestone by 2020.
“We have a lot of sunlight, so this will be good for us,” says Michael Annang, an electrical engineer and one of the 8 permanent staff on site. “The maintenance is the only problem: you have to constantly clean [the panels] from dust and make sure the weeds don’t grow there.”
Ghana is trying to diversify fuel sources, from gas to crude oil, LPG and LNG, and to increase the number of renewables – one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) the country has agreed to achieve. According to Dr. Ackah, the Head of Policy at the Africa Center for Energy Policy, the current energy policy is to use gas as the main source of fuel for the energy sector, as it’s cheaper than oil and cleaner than coal, while trying to boost solar projects. For money’s sake as well as the environment’s.
“The solar project is cleaner power. This project, we can keep 25 years,” says Luan Ye, a Chinese national who goes by Dylan, and is BXC’s engineering manager. “The panels, over the water, will help the country change to cleaner power. After the water finishes and the oil finishes, how will you get the power?”
The country’s transition to solar has started slowly, making the objective of a 10 percent slice of energy resources coming from renewables by 2020 nothing more than wishful thinking. On a smaller scale though, the idea has taken root in many places where dumsor switched off everything but an entrepreneurial spirit.
“We went to YouTube and we saw how things were built,” explains Idrissu Musah, a tutor and the head of the social studies department at King’s College complex in Kumasi. “Then we went to town and asked the price of these panels, the gadgets.”
Standing on a small terrace on the rooftop of one of the school buildings, he points at a dusty solar panel dominating the view, and connected to an inverter by a bundle of cables. Musah was among a handful of other teachers and school administrators who argued that one of the possible ways to take on the ongoing energy crisis could be using solar power.
During dumsor, the school’s over 2,000 students weren’t able to go to “prep” (preparation for the next day) and do their homework at night, because there were no lights. When power was off, the hours in the computer labs were wasted. The school was paralyzed and the administration knew they had to find a solution, but installing solar panels seemed too expensive —until Internet tutorials made it possible.
“We realized that if we built it ourselves we could beat down the cost.”
The school currently derives almost 20% of its electricity from solar power and is planning to reach 90% within the next three years. By using a photocell, the inverter takes over as soon as the electricity goes off, and no one even notices. The electricity bill has been reduced, and no one has an excuse to avoid doing their homework anymore.
“If you are able to implement it in those schools in the long run it will be very cost effective. Now the schools are using big generators or plants that run on fuel, and sometimes students are made to pay the fuel costs,” continues Musah.
“A time may come, even when there are light offs, the schools don’t suffer.”
Producer: Kevin Taylor
Photography: Marisa Schwartz Taylor
Writing: Caterina Clerici:
Videography: Caterina Clerici and Marisa Schwartz Taylor
Video Editing: Caterina Clerici
Drone Pilot: Kevin Taylor
Additional Reporting: Fentuo Tahiru