The President of the Republic of Ghana, Nana Akuffo-Addo stated that his administration was “determined to discard the mindset of dependence on aid, charity, and handouts and aim towards becoming self-reliant within the context of strong global cooperation” when he was addressing the 2018 G-20 compact with Africa conference in Berlin, Germany.
The president’s plans for a Ghana Beyond Aid is to promote industrialization, agriculture, and education. As such, he has initiated three flagship programs: The One District One Factory, One Village One Dam, and Free Senior High School programs. These programs without a doubt will require a substantial amount of electricity to succeed. However, we are yet to see a clear roadmap for the role of modern energy services, such as renewables, play in all of these. At the moment, the 100 million Euros bilateral agreement under Germany’s G-20 Compact with Africa is the only association of clean energy to the Ghana Beyond Aid agenda. In this article, I seek to make a case for the Government of Ghana to consider the creation of clean energy innovation hubs (to serve as incubators) that foster energy independence, as a critical step to achieving a Ghana Beyond Aid.
The development of the renewable energy (RE) sector has over the years been supported by development partners and donors such as the World Bank, Spanish Government, and the United Nations Development Programme. Key challenges associated with this has been the breakdown and abandonment of systems after donors withdraw their support. The failure of these projects has also been attributed to low levels of education and inadequately skilled personnel, especially in rural communities. Moreover, policymakers view RE projects as pre-electrification schemes and would prefer to extend grid electricity to remote communities with even fewer households than the islands using solar mini-grids. Sadly, solar users who have irregular sources of income will now be required to pay monthly bills albeit frequent power outages. The main challenges with the current situation are: (I) ineffective monitoring and maintenance due to high cost of travel; (II) inability to effectively evaluate national RE penetration; (III) inability to effectively test and upgrade infrastructure for grid-connected renewable energy; (IV) weak networks among stakeholders; and (V) inadequate R&D. It, therefore, appears there is a lack of a system’s perspective to developing the RE sector.
These challenges raise a number of legitimate questions. The first one is centred on which strategic plan is being used to develop the sector. The second question is whether Ghana is seeking to transition to a more sustainable energy future where all stakeholders adopt new and sustainable ways of energy production, distribution, and consumption or it plans to identify key sectors or geographical locations that will adopt sustainable energy systems to leapfrog conventional ones.
Arguably the more appropriate option is the creation of spaces (i.e. industrial applications or geographic locations) where the development of RE technology is facilitated by mechanisms to shield it from harsh market conditions. In these spaces, RE technologies and society co-evolve through the shaping of expectations, actor networks, and learning processes to create a new and more sustainable regime. This framework affords pragmatism and leapfrogging, making it suitable for addressing urgent problems such as climate change and increasing urban pollution. It also fits contexts, such as unelectrified rural communities, without the dominant energy infrastructure. With less than one per cent RE penetration, approximately 30 per cent of the households without access to electricity, increasing electricity cost, and frequent blackouts, the creation of clean energy hubs to achieve a ten per cent RE target by 2030 is not too late.
By prioritizing energy independence at the regional or district level, the government has the opportunity to strategically identify towns or districts that can be powered by 100 per cent RE. Possible selection criteria are (I) high cost of electricity transmission; (II) high potential of RE resources (i.e. solar radiation, farm waste, forest residue, biodiesel, household biomass waste, and wind); (III) presence of economic activities; and (IV) proximity of settlements to RE resource. Afterwards, relevant stakeholders, such as technical universities, research centres, financial institutions, RE companies, etc. are deliberately setup or incentivised to open offices in these areas. The growth of these clean innovation hubs will then cause systemic changes in the current energy system when visions become more precise and broadly accepted, learning processes are well configured, and stakeholder networks become stronger.
In these innovation hubs, key institutions (such as hospitals, hotels, schools, factories, and government agencies) could be mandated by law to generate a percentage of their electricity using renewables. For instance, all boarding schools should be able to generate 20 per cent of their energy needs using biogas produced from human excreta. This would significantly reduce the government’s debts to the Electricity Company of Ghana, which is currently over 1.6 billion cedis.
This approach to energy provision opens up the sector to create jobs down the value chain. That is, project managers, energy economists, electricians, welders, masons, plumbers, and marketing consultants will be gainfully employed, which in turn will have ripple effects on the economies of these hubs. This presents an environment where citizens create jobs to increase government revenue, unlike the government creating jobs which end up overburdening its budget. In addition, with increasing competition in the clean energy space, the cost of energy will reduce significantly so that start-ups will not be crippled with high operations costs.
Furthermore, the government will save our forex reserves that would have been used to purchase thermal plants and pay ex-pats to install and maintain them. Other benefits are lower installation costs of RE technologies due to high competition among companies; increase in local and foreign investment; highly skilled renewable energy financiers; improved chances of getting Clean Development Mechanism funding; effective R&D; and quality policy formation, implementation, and enforcement.
At this moment, Africans have already demonstrated that we can leapfrog conventional systems and champion global innovation through the widespread adoption of mobile phones and the proliferation of mobile money services, respectively. The energy sector presents another opportunity for us to champion innovation by designing systems that fit our socio-economic and cultural context.