In recent years, South Africa and Madagascar faced droughts while a severe cyclone pummeled Mozambique. Along West Africa’s coastline, rising sea levels threaten major cities like Lagos, Accra and Abidjan. Given the climate crisis urgency, countries such as Ghana are turning to solar power to accelerate the energy transition.
In August 2021, a UN body on climate change was unequivocal: humanity is to blame for heating the planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sweeping report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, concluded that human activity has caused the planet to warm 1.2°C, leading to catastrophic weather events. The urgency now is for fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), which have powered the global economy since the Industrial Revolution – and contributed 89% to CO2 emissions in 2018 – to rapidly wind down. Signs of tackling the energy transition are unmistakable. In the face of mounting public pressure, banks are cutting their financing for the fossil fuel industry.
While in Africa, no country is better poised to drive the clean energy revolution than Ghana. The medium-sized country with a 31.7-million population (World Bank figures in 2020) has attracted pan-African institutions and multinational corporations alike. Since 2020, the new Africa free trade zone, the AfCFTA, and US social media company Twitter, have moved their head offices to Accra. Global manufacturers have also set up shop in Ghana. In 2020, Volkswagen opened a vehicle manufacturing facility.
While attracting industry and commerce of this level, Ghana can turn to solar energy in growing a thriving renewables sector. Solar can uniquely meet the challenges posed by climate change to Ghana’s energy sector while powering the country’s economy, which the AfDB estimates to grow by 4% this year. Given that solar energy is still in its early stages, there is a unique opportunity to build a more gender-inclusive sector, with women taking up leadership roles.
Affordable solar can power Ghana’s diverse industry
An increasing number of Ghanaian businesses are switching to solar energy to power their operations. Given the advances in solar PV technology, solar is more affordable than ever. Over the last decade, the price of electricity generated by solar has fallen by 89%. Ghanaian businesses pay $15-24 per kilowatt-hour, up to double OECD average power costs. By using solar energy, they could save up to 30% on total power costs. They can reinvest these cost savings in their businesses by expanding operations and hiring new employees. This ultimately drives productivity and profitability.
Given its modular nature, there is no limit other than available space to how much electricity solar can generate for a specific business’s energy needs – whether a large manufacturing concern or smaller business offering services. Rider Steel, a steel recycling company located in the Tema Free Trade Zone, installed a 1.1MWp solar system, which powers nearly a fifth of their energy consumption on one of their lines. The system consists of 2,844 x 380W solar panels. Rider Steel will save significantly on power costs over the 25-year life of the system. By using solar, the company will offset 650MT of carbon emissions each year. Although Rider Steel’s solar installation is a small contribution to its overall power consumption, it can easily be scaled to power a larger load.
Smaller service businesses with multiple locations are also adopting solar energy. As part of its sustainability targets, Vivo Energy, a downstream gas company and Shell licensee in Africa, has started rolling out solar at dozens of sites across the country. For a multi-location client, the advantages of owning a solar plant are clear: they reduce their power costs by up to 30%, and they improve their environmental footprint. With the four solar installations, Vivo Energy is offsetting nearly 100MT of CO2 emissions on a yearly basis.
Women can lead an inclusive renewable energy sector
In West Africa, Ghana can quickly build a renewable energy sector that is gender-inclusive. It has some of the best engineering programmes in the region. The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi has consistently been the top university in Ghana and among the top-ranked in West Africa, according to the US News & World Report. Its electrical engineering core curriculum – made up of power system analysis, power electronics assembly and circuit theory – provides a solid foundation for students to pursue a career in renewable energy.
KNUST has produced talented women engineers who are passionate about solving problems in Ghana’s power sector. Sylvia Ekremet, KNUST 2013 graduate and Daystar Power business development lead, wanted to pursue a career in the energy industry as power outages affected her growing up. “When I was young, I often read and studied by candlelight. That’s why I now wear glasses,” she said.
Elizabeth Blewudzi, KNUST 2016 graduate and Daystar Power field service manager, shared similar ambitions. From a young age, she loved maths and hands-on problems. She built small electrical circuits and helped her father fix damaged mechanical parts like brakes and car and ship clutches.
After finishing her second year at KNUST in 2014, Blewudzi interned at the Volta River Authority (VRA) at the height of rolling power outages – or dumsor, as it’s known in Ghana. That experience whetted Blewudzi’s appetite to pursue a career in Ghana’s energy sector.
As Ghanaian women engineers, Ekremet and Blewudzi are the exceptions, not the rule. The number of Ghanaian women studying engineering is still low. In 2020, only 14% of the KNUST College of Engineering’s 5,772 student body was female. According to Engineers Without Borders, only 12 women professors make up the 166-person The solar energy industry can play a critical role in nurturing female engineering talent. Solar companies can incentivise more women to study engineering by creating hiring programmes that favour high potential women employees. Daystar Power has committed to hiring women for 40% of its total leadership and technical roles by 2024.
Job training programmes that emphasise practical skills can also help ease the path to employment for women wanting to pursue a career in solar energy. While Ghana’s undergrad education provides a strong foundation in electrical engineering, it is weaker in practical application. By participating in job training initiatives, fresh female engineering graduates learn hands-on skills that boost their employability: placing solar panels to maximise yield and using software to estimate solar power output. Job training programmes act as a bridge between university and jobs, easing the path to employment for women.
The way forward
As the IPCC report made clear, the climate crisis has reached a tipping point. With its solid governance track record that makes it a hub on the continent, Ghana can take up the mantle of climate leadership to drive a green revolution in African countries. Leading by example through its adoption of solar energy, Ghana shows that solar powers economic growth while also lowering carbon emissions.
Crucially, Ghanaian women have the opportunity to lead the growth and development of a local renewables sector. Solar is the energy source of the future. Ghana, a pioneering country with an illustrious history of leadership in sub- Saharan Africa, can lead the continent forward in a world transitioning away from fossil fuels. ESI