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28.03.2007 General News

Light a candle or curse the darkness

By Conor McCreery and Albert Oppong Ansah

Ghanaians better get used to the darkness, the energy crisis is far from over, at least not in the short-term. At a press conference in Accra, held jointly by the Electricity Company of Ghana and the Volta River Authority, leading officials from the two utilities said the power shortage will last until the end of August.

The VRA and the ECG explained the necessity of the most recent load restrictions, which have seen the Akosombo Dam cut to just two operating units. The dam had previously been operating using three or four of its six generating units. But, VRA head man Joshua Kofi Ofedie says if the new restrictions were not implemented the dam would have had to be shut by the end of next month.

And, in an exclusive interview with The Statesman, Mr Ofedie says Ghanaians will also have to get used to the idea of paying more for their electricity. The VRA boss says there are plans to increase the tariff rate over the next three years.

According to Mr Ofedie, the increased tariffs are needed because the VRA and ECG are losing money on every unit of electricity they sell. The utilities calculate it costs them roughly ¢900 to generate each unit, including transmission costs. However, they only sell power for ¢750 on average.

The low capital base of the energy sector over the decades, due to unrealistically low tariffs, is seen by experts as at the heart of the present energy crisis.

Yet, as Kwame Pianim, the chief regulator noted this week, any attempt to charge realistic tariffs are bound to be met by demonstrations by the same voices that cry out against the energy crisis.

Yesterday, Mr Ofedie lamented the shortfall makes it "embarrassing to go to the bank” to ask for loans to expand the nation's power generating capacity.

The Statesman also asked about the privatisation option for the sector. A day earlier, Tony Oteng-Gyasi, president of the Association of Ghana Industries, had called on Government to consider adopting as a long-term goal the “liberalisation” of the market, pointing at the successes the telecommunications and fuel industries experienced when they were liberalised.

The VRA boss told The Statesman a separate transmission company was scheduled to be spun-off from the VRA and ECG"s assets sometime in the next few months. Although, he declined to comment on whether the generation assets would also be liberalised.

However, some help is on the way for Ghana's embittered citizens. The utilities have firm plans to bring an extra 50 Mega-watts of capacity on line by the end of the month in the form of a thermal (oil or gas burning) plant in Tema. At the end of April an additional 86 MW will come on line, also thermal.

The two utilities plan to bring a total of more than 300MW of new capacity into the market by the end of August - which should stop the current crisis. The expansion is being partially funded by the Government, which confirmed plans to spend $450 million on increasing supply. $170m of that has already been transferred to the utilities.

The drawback of the thermal plants is that they burn fossil fuels to generate their electricity, which makes them especially vulnerable to rising prices for oil and natural gas. It also necessitates being able to properly supply the plants.

Mr. Ofedie says some of the latter worry is being solved by the West African gas pipeline, which he says will help reduce generating costs at the Tema facilities.

The new capacity is part of the utilities' short-term plans to fight the crisis. In the medium term the VRA was optimistic that a long-proposed 300 MW plant would soon come to fruition, saying 19 parties had expressed “firm interest” in building the plant, and a “short list” would be compiled soon. The plant has been delayed due to worries that fuel could not be economically supplied to the plant. However the VRA says the new gas pipe-line has addressed those concerns.

The VRA also says negotiations over the planned Chinese built Bui Dam are “progressing”, and Mr Ofedie expected an official agreement would be ready soon.

The utilities also used the conference to again take Ghanaians to task for their conservation efforts, with Mr Ofedie saying the VRA and ECG had seen “very little support from the consuming public for electricity conservation”.

“We see that the general … behaviour when our lights are on seems to suggest an abundant supply of electricity. Industries must install and operate appropriate energy saving devices in their premise” Mr. Ofedie said.

As part of the drive to help Ghanaians save energy, the Ministry of Energy is buying six million low energy consuming bulbs. The VRA has imported a first consignment of 55,00 low energy bulbs, part of which are being sold at a reduced price to the public.

The utilities acknowledged previous efforts to install low energy bulbs had been hurt by unscrupulous merchants who sold fake bulbs. This time around the ECG plans to emboss its logo on the bulbs to show consumers which are the genuine items. The utilities say that if Ghanaians replaced their current lights with all six million low energy bulbs it would save the country 200 MW.

Meanwhile, the highly touted and highly anticipated West African Power Pool has been delayed by difficulties in synchronising the power systems of Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana.

“We have frequency differences between the countries,” to a highly placed source at the Volta River Authority, who had not been cleared to speak to the media, told The Statesman yesterday, Chris Benjamin reports.

The power pool plan, announced two weeks ago by Government, is an ambitious attempt to combine the energy flow of Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Nigeria, so that if any one of these power-starved nations is short at any given time, it can draw extra from the pool. In other words, the objective is to even out the ebb and flow of demand and supply, taking advantage of the law of averages between a large and highly populous area of West Africa.

“We have some Nigerians coming in on Sunday,” he said, to meet with VRA technical staff to work out means of synching the two systems. Ghana's power supply is already linked to Cote d'Ivoire, which in turn is linked to Burkina Faso, so some progress has been made.” The difference in frequencies was not anticipated when the project was originally announced.

He was uncertain as to when the problem would be fixed, but said that “we should find out next week” after meetings with Nigeria.

Whenever the project is complete it will create an impressive line from Cote d'Ivoire to Takoradi, Tema, and on throughout our eastern neighbours.

Those hoping for some release from Monday's heavy rains can just keep hoping. “The earth is very dry,” he said. “The first rain is mostly absorbed.” Besides, depending on the rain patterns, much of it may not fall within the Akosombo Dam's catchment areas, mean the water will not help increase dam levels. Much more rainfall is needed before power will flow so easily once again.

Still, he flatly denies the possibility of a total system collapse. “It's just a matter of managing our thermal and hydro power,” he said. “We still have 500 megawatts” to work with. Also, VRA is in the process of testing individual power generators that should begin contributing another 50 MW starting the first week of April, and Ghana's mining companies are prepared to give 80 MW in surplus power from their generators back into the grid.

So, while Ghana's businesses and home-dwellers can reasonably expect some relief from the constant outages in the next few weeks, conservation is still the order of the day, at least until July.