John McDonald with IEEE leadership in Ghana.

African Nations Seek to Bolster Power Infrastructure, Provide Universal Access: Part 2

Feb. 11, 2020
In the concluding part of this two-part series, the author reports on his recent time representing IEEE with African Union representatives in Ghana. In Part 1, the author had reflected on his time in Zambia, a country in southern Africa.

Author’s note: I offer the following account not as an expert on African electric power and access issues, but as a member of a global community of electrical engineers and related subject matter experts whose primary role in this world is to assess practical challenges and to somehow meet them — in short, to "get things done."

In early December 2018, I made an eye-opening journey to the African Union nations of Zambia and Ghana as a representative of the IEEE Power and Energy Society’s Ad Hoc Committee on Africa (AHCA). I had the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goal 9 on my mind: "Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation."

As my expertise lies in the power sector, I had to consider resilient infrastructure solutions to Zambia’s and Ghana’s myriad and specific challenges and opportunities — according to their views, rather than my own. Fortunately, prior to my trip, I had the benefit of visiting with an African delegation on a reverse trade mission to the United States in late February, early March 2018, sponsored by the U.S. Trade Development Agency.

The African delegation, with representatives from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, had described aging infrastructure, underinvestment, and reliability and capacity issues that to one degree or another affect all African Union nations.

[Click here for Part 1 of this two-part article.]

Ghana’s Specific Challenges and Opportunities

Ghana is a country slightly smaller than Oregon, with a population of about 28 million people. The cities of Accra, Kumasi (Ghana’s largest city), Sekondi, and Takoradi all lie in southern Ghana and are home to nearly 60% of the country’s population. But 21 million people reside in the country’s rural areas. While 90% of city dwellers have access to electricity — though with reliability issues — only about 67% of rural dwellers have access. For electricity, Ghana relies on about 60% fossil-fuel sources, 42% on hydropower, and only 1% on renewable sources.

That data perhaps reflects the outside world’s view. Ghana’s challenges, as seen from within, have been articulated by Ebenezer Nyarko Kumi of the University of Energy and Natural Resources, located in Sunyani, Ghana. His report, The Electricity Situation in Ghana: Challenges and Opportunities, was published by the Center for Global Development, based in Washington, D.C., in September 2017. Kumi wrote:

"In the past decade, Ghana has experienced severe electricity supply challenges costing the nation an average of US$2.1 million in loss of production daily. This situation has developed even though installed generation capacity has more than doubled. The peak electricity demand only increased by 50% during this same period. The electricity supply challenges can be attributed to a number of factors, including high levels of losses in the distribution system, which is mainly because of the obsolete nature of distribution equipment, as well as non-payment of revenue by consumers.

"Other factors are overdependence on thermal and hydro sources for electricity generation and a poor tariff structure, which makes it difficult for utility companies to recover the cost of electricity production.

"In the face of these challenges, however, Ghana could achieve universal access by the year 2020 with an annual electrification rate of about 4.38%.

"Solving Ghana’s electricity challenges would require measures including … diversifying the electricity generation mix through the development of other hydropower and renewable energy sources for which the country has huge potential, expanding the prepaid metering system to include all public and private institutions, restructuring the tariff regime to ensure utilities can recover their cost of generation, and promoting energy efficiency programs."

George Eduful, an executive with the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG), wrote to me after my talks in Accra, "Great presentation[s], [offering] in-depth insight into grid modernization and very relevant to the audience and [Ghana’s] power industry. It is our wish that more of such programs are sponsored by the IEEE."

On a personal note, one of Eduful’s colleagues, Ing. Felix K. Akpagloh, PMP, construction manager, networks projects directorate, ECG, requested guidance on a topic for his PhD program. I soon directed him to a professor at Texas A&M who in turn suggested that Akpagloh might benefit by studying geomagnetic disturbances on the grid.

Global Community Support

My trip to Africa was sponsored by the IEEE, which has established IEEE "Sections" in 14 African countries. In particular, Zambia and Ghana have established chapters of the IEEE Power & Energy Society. The IEEE has identified five Sub-Saharan countries that need greater engineering capacity to meet their development goals, including Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia. This support includes both power and energy, and supporting information and communication technologies.

As I prepared for my own journey, I was well aware of and heartened by the fact that there is strong global support among non-governmental entities and government agencies for strengthening electrification and promoting universal access in Africa.

On the issue of supply, the Breakthrough Institute, dedicated to technology solutions to environmental problems, argues for U.S. involvement in African countries’ nuclear power plans. In terms of proposed policy, both Zambia and Ghana have nuclear power ambitions  Ghana for 300 MW of nuclear energy by 2025, Zambia for 2 GW by 2026 to 2031. To date, both countries have signed agreements with Russia’s Rosatom to meet their goals. In my view, if the United States is to get involved in providing nuclear power technology to Zambia and Ghana or other African nations, it should be with those countries’ citizens foremost in mind, rather than as an act of jockeying for global political influence.

Clearly, the challenge of access is recognized by the UN via its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and by the African Union — which includes all 55 African nations — through its Agenda 2063. The UN’s SDG 7 aims at achieving universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy by 2030. The African Union’s Agenda 2063 has targeted an increase of 50% in electricity generation, 50% distribution expansion, and a 70% rate of access to electricity by 2023. These goals are deemed crucial to the growth of African economies. Specifically, "affordable access" is required to transform rural communities and for industrialization in urban and rural areas. Development of aging grid infrastructure is needed to serve Africa’s rapidly growing population. Yet there is another solution to Africa’s challenges that no doubt will receive increasing attention  advanced ideas in social and economic development can be supported by advanced technology development. Rural Africa has an opportunity to "leap frog" ahead of their urban counterparts because of technologies that include distributed energy resources (DERs) and standalone microgrids that can power remote villages.

In fact, the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) authored a 2018 report, Micro-grids: Empowering Communities and Enabling Transformation in Africa. The report’s executive summary pointed out, "The cost implications of developing the traditional power grid based on large-scale central generation favors off-grid micro-grids as a cost-effective path to providing electricity access to rural and remote communities in the short term. Even where micro-grids may not make economic sense, rural electrification strategies may opt to implement micro-grids on the basis of providing energy access to stimulate productive usage and rural industrialization.

"While acknowledging that undercurrent rates of energy infrastructure investment and deployment, and universal access targets will not be met by 2030, off-grid solutions are expected to contribute to more than 50% of the electricity generation capacity required for universal access."

The report also points out that wide-scale deployment of microgrids in Africa will require technical and financial support, supportive policy, multiple stakeholders,  and consumer education and awareness. Despite this optimistic-yet-practical assessment, underlying, systemic challenges remain.

As the World Bank’s Africa Development Forum report, Electricity Access in Sub-Saharan Africa: Uptake, Reliability, and Complementary Factors for Economic Impact, published in early 2019, stated, "The problem in Africa is not power but poverty."

According to the World Bank report, improving the reliability and affordability of service is one step. Improved reliability will encourage consumers to think that electric service is worth paying for. The history of commercial electrification in developed nations underscores that the greater the number of consumers, the lower the cost of service to each. Still, challenges remain.

"Constraints include irregular household income, high (and repeated) connection charges, tedious application processes, and a quality of housing that does not always meet the requirements needed for connections to the main grid," the World Bank report adds. "Prepaid meters can help; so can flexible payment plans, ready boards, and smart metering."

The report argues, "Access to electricity cannot be a standalone goal; what is needed is to place the productive use of electrification center stage. This means countries need to invest in other aspects of their infrastructure at the same time as they invest in electricity, such as in improving access to markets through better roads and expanding credit for new businesses. In this way, electricity could energize agriculture in rural areas and industry in urban areas."

One Man’s Look Ahead

We engineers are hardly blindered to the complex fabric of ancillary social and political issues that affect technological progress. Clearly, "solutions" for African Union nations seeking more reliable, resilient power, adding capacity to their systems, and reaching rural customers for universal access must address related social and political issues. Still, I came away from my journey to Zambia and Ghana with great respect for local expertise and keen interest in a range of solutions that can meet the African Union’s goals, the UN’s SDGs, and the needs of the people in each individual nation. Whether ambitious goals can be met on established timelines is less important than our collective efforts to meet them despite the odds. Success in that sense simply requires the global community to listen carefully to Africa’s needs and challenges and to respond with empathy, equanimity, and determination. As an engineer and global traveler of a half-century’s standing, I believe this can be done.

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