Adwoa earned a BA in history in the study of religions from the University of Ghana. She continued at the University of Ghana to pursue an MPhil in History, focusing on women’s organization and the nationalist struggles in Ghana. Adwoa received her PhD in History and also received her graduate certificate in the women, gender and sexuality studies program at Washington University. In addition to women and gender history, Adwoa has interests in the area of sexuality, postcolonial history and transnational feminism. She plans to broaden her study beyond Ghana in her examination of the professionalization of social work in post-colonial Africa.
Adwoa loves to travel, getting to know people and to experiment with new recipes from around the world.
The Academy creates a safe space for Scholars from different parts of the world to share ideas of making the world a better place. Being a McDonnell Scholar definitely forced me to step out of my comfort zone. In our own small ways we try to develop workable solutions to the world’s problems.Adwoa Opong
The Uncertain Future of Hydropower in Ghana
“May it symbolize not only a great achievement of Ghana, but let it also be a light leading us on to our destined and cherished goal—a union government for Africa.” With these words, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president inaugurated the Akosombo Dam on 23rd January 1965.
Arguably the most comprehensive infrastructural project that any independent African government had undertaken, the Akosombo dam was Ghana’s first encounter with hydropower and served as a template for subsequent grand construction and industrialization schemes. Serving not only Ghana, but also its neighbors, Togo, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast, the dam held a lot of promise for the young nation’s industrialization drive. Its construction also created the largest man-made lake in the world, the Volta Lake.
However, fifty years on, very little positive can be said of its prospects and most importantly the viability of hydroelectric power as Ghana’s main source of energy. In the face of population growth, climate change, wider changes in the global energy economy and most importantly, an energy crisis looming over the nation, Ghana once again has to lead the subcontinent in championing the cause for alternative sources of power.
A recent World Bank study established that over a billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity. In addition, over two billion continue to use solid fuels such as wood, charcoal and coal for cooking and heating, situations that pose significant threats to the environment and ecology. Ghana is no exception. Currently, the nation derives its electricity from three hydroelectric dams, a few thermal plants, two solar plants in the Northern and central regions and the latest addition, some power barges. The largest of the three dams is the Akosombo hydro plant. The second hydro project, the Kpong Dam was completed and officially inaugurated in 1982, and in December 2013, the government of Ghana with the expertise of the Chinese company Sinohydro and funding from China Exim Bank, inaugurated the Bui dam, the third hydroelectric dam to meet growing consumer and industrial power demand. With an installed capacity of about 400 MW, the Bui hydro plant remains the largest Chinese funded project in the country as well as the largest foreign investment since the construction of the Akosombo hydroelectric power project in the 1960s.
Together the three dams at their estimated capacity contribute a total of 1580 megawatts of power to a country whose demand stands at about 2200 MW. Thermal energy plants constructed between the years 2000 and 2016, make up for the deficit. Even though all the above look and sound promising, the country has been saddled with what is arguably the worst energy crisis (popularly called dumsor, a term used to describe the persistent, irregular and unpredictable power outages) since independence. The situation has not only revealed the uncertain future of hydroelectric power but also the unsustainable nature of fossil fuels in Ghana. This precarious power situation has revived debates from all sides of the political divide on the best path towards reliable and sustainable energy.
Energy experts have cited many reasons for this problem, including lack of maintenance of the distribution grid, fluctuations in world crude prices and technical challenges with the various power distribution agencies. The two major factors that are only considered marginally by everyone in the debate—including think tanks—are climate change and population growth. Meteorologists have observed significant changes in Ghana’s rainfall patterns over the past three decades. Some of the observations include an increase in heavy rainfall causing floods, a delay of the rainy season (from April to May) and an increase in dry spells associated with higher temperatures. The effect of these changes on all three dams is telling. Partly due to the erratic and unpredictable rainfall patterns all three hydro dams are operating below capacity. In fact, the Akosombo dam has been operating at a fraction of its installed capacity as a result of the dwindling water levels in the Volta Lake. The latest addition, the Bui hydroelectric project has performed below expectation since its construction and has caused experts to cast doubt on its long-term benefit. It is equally crucial to note that from 1988 to 2008, the country’s electricity consumption grew at an average rate of eight (8) percent per annum putting enormous pressure on electricity production, straining generation capacity to its limits. This trend has continued in the current decade and it is expected that the energy crisis will deepen in the foreseeable future as the growing population continues to place increasing demands on the electricity grid.
To alleviate the challenges involved, the private sector has resorted to the use of power generators. Ghana has gradually become a bustling market for imported domestic and industrial power generators. This shift to power generators places users at the caprices of the fluctuating fuel prices on the world market. The result is the transfer of extra costs by businesses to consumers of goods and services leading to inflation.
What options are there? Fossil fuels are not economically viable. Thermal power for example, places Ghana in a distinctly disadvantageous position in the world crude market. Due to the politics of international business and competing interests on the world market, the country is not ready to take advantage of its recent abundant oil discovery. This leaves Ghana in a perpetual cycle of crisis. As far as the construction of more dams is concerned, the future appears bleak. The amount of water collecting behind these dams is getting noticeably less with less rainfall in the catchment area. This is compounded by the fact that other countries such as Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast have recently dammed their sections of the black and white Volta rivers. Indeed, the prospects for hydropower as the dominant source of electricity for the country is for the most part exceptionally limited and appear less feasible each day. The logistical and climatic conditions aside, the country cannot afford further social and environmental disruptions of dam construction. Studies estimate that hydropower dams create barriers to fish migration and interrupt sediment transport. But most importantly, damming distorts the natural river flows by storing and releasing water in rhythm with the patterns of electricity demand in the service area rather than the seasonal patterns of rainfall and runoff in the catchment area.
So what is the most prudent alternative for Ghana? Clean power with zero greenhouse emissions is what Ghana needs and has indeed been paying attention to recently. With solar irradiation levels ranging from 4.5 to 6.0 kWh/m2/day Ghana has the potential to derive significant portions of its energy from sunshine. The Volta River Authority (VRA) which serves as the main generator and supplier of electricity in Ghana has taken the initiative in overseeing the construction of two solar plants in the Northern and Central regions, including one added recently by a Chinese contractor. Initial concerns with the cost of installment and maintenance are gradually subsiding as private sector investment in solar energy increases. Chinese firms—as part of their African Investment program—have been partners in the expansion of solar plants across the country.
The benefits of solar energy to both domestic and industrial users are enormous. Compared with hydro, the production and distribution of solar energy does not pose as much threat to the environment. With the much needed government and private sector investment, solar energy production has the potential to create new opportunities of employment. It is also very stable as the source is the sun, which is not affected by geopolitical or global economic changes.
And what of the dams? They could go back to their original purpose, providing a stable source of electricity for industrial development in the immediate short-term. With solar energy generation in place, hydroelectricity would be stable with much less demand on it, and could serve as an incentive to attract foreign investors to Ghana, with an established track record of socio-political stability and a capable human resource.