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Challenges with Ghana’s rural electrification
At 84% access to electricity, Ghana is second only to South Africa in sub-Saharan Africa. Nonetheless, about 33% of rural households are not electrified. Majority of these rural areas are islands and lakeside communities along the Volta Lake, where it is not economically feasible to extend the national grid mainly due to lack of infrastructure (bridges, roads, etc.) and high cost of laying underwater cables from the nearest grid facilities. A more feasible and less demanding option for providing dependable electricity to remote regions lies with mini-grids.
What are mini-grids?
Mini-grids are small-scale electricity production and distribution systems, mostly defined to be between 10 kW – 10 MW, which are independent of the central grid. However, they provide electricity for small communities at the same quality as the central grid. The source of power in mini-grids can be from renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass, biogas, etc, or from diesel generators, but mostly from a combination of two or more sources, known as hybrid systems.
Mini-grids in Ghana
The first mini-grid was established at Appolonia in the Greater Accra Region in 1992 by Ministry of Energy, funded by UNDP. The source of electricity was from biogas plants fed with night soil and dung. An engine was used to convert biogas to electricity which was distributed to inhabitants in the area for street lighting and small load domestic appliances such as lighting, radio and television. In the mid 2000s, some attempts were made to provide mini-grid electricity for some communities at Busunu in Northern Region using Jatropha Oil. Both these bioenergy-based mini-grids are currently not operational.
The greatest boost to mini-grids came from The World Bank under the Ghana Energy Development and Access Project (GEDAP) where the Ministry of Energy piloted mini-grids in five island settlements. The beneficiary communities are Aglakope (Krachi West), Kurdokope (Krachi East), Atigagome and Wayokope (Sene East) and Pediatorkope (Ada East).
Aside these interventions from the Ministry, Blackstar Energy, a private company, has been licensed to install and operate mini-grids. The company operates about 17 systems in Ashanti and Brong Ahafo Regions at Katapei, Anyteneten/Odumasi, Kofihuikrom and Affulkrom, Nyamebeye, Nyamebekyere, Mempekasa, among others. Another private company, Translight Solar is also reported to be operating in the Upper East district.
Government policy and programmes on mini-grids
Government, through Ministry of Energy, recognises that deployment of renewable energy (RE)-based mini-grids in island areas is the surest way for Ghana to extend electricity to off-grid communities, which is important to achieving universal electrification in 2020. However, mini-grids are public-sector led, taking the same character as other ongoing rural electrification projects, with specific mandates placed on VRA (operation of mini-grids), ECG and NEDCo (distribution and tariff collection), Energy Commission (technical regulation) and PURC (inclusion of mini-grids in tariffs setting mechanism).
The Ministry has tasked itself to deploy at least 300 systems by 2030. Already, five additional mini-grids are in the process of being installed with support of the Swiss Government, with Further, 55 mini-grids also to be rolled out soon under a facility from the African Development Bank. The Chinese government is also expected to provide support for additional 150 mini-grids.
Benefits of mini-grids
Mini-grids improve the quality of life and the standard of living of off-grid rural areas. They offer many benefits – social, economic and environmental – to local communities and the nation as a whole. Availability of lighting improves education, social cohesion, reduces drudgery and improve community security. Meanwhile, the presence of electricity allows access to information from radio, TV and internet. Moreover, they open up rural areas to the establishment and/or growth of local businesses. Improvements in local environments are also observed when kerosene and diesel-powered engines are displaced by RE-based systems. At the national level, energy security is improved, rural-urban migration is curtailed, access to knowledge is increased and overall progress in education, health and wellbeing, are all realised. Thus, mini-grids deployment will enable the country to achieve its 10% (now at 1%, minus large hydro) target in RE in the generation mix, accelerate the meeting of national developmental targets, expansion of the reach of core government programmes (Planting for Food and Jobs, one-District-one-Factory), and achievement of sustainable development goals, notably, SDG1 (no poverty), SDG3 (good health and well-being), SDG4 (quality education), SDG7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), SDG13 (climate action), and SDG17 (partnership).
Observations of mini-grids already deployed
Evidence from beneficiary island communities show that mini-grids have had considerable improvements on the quality of life and standard of living of those areas. A survey carried out by the Centre for Energy, Environment, and Sustainable Development (CEESD) in 2016 at Aglarkope and Kurdokope revealed establishment of new businesses including retail of frozen fish and meat. In education, availability of lighting has enabled kids to study at night while teachers are able to prepare better for classes in the evening. Another survey by the Netherlands Development Agency (SNV, 2018) in 8 communities showed that mini-grids have enabled women to perform household chores better and more efficiently. On health, household complaints on ailments (headaches, watery/red eyes, etc.) from candles, kerosene and other fuels for lighting reduced from 30 to 7% following the introduction of mini-grids. Further, they partly attributed it to improved health enjoyed by children.
With regards to education, over 96% of respondents believe the systems have increased interest shown by pupils in school activities who now study on average 3.5 h/d compared to 1.5 h without lighting. Over a third of households confirmed improved grades of their wards at school. Access to information had also improved considerably due to increase in the use of TV and mobile phones.
Currently, most mini-grids are not able to provide 24 hours of electricity for the communities. According to business owners using refrigerators, this situation is affecting growth of their operation. It was revealed that power generated is not adequate to support high end gadgets like iron and microwaves at some points in some communities. In the government operated systems, a third of respondents complained about unreliability of power. Cleary, the impact of mini-grids on the fishing industry has not been pronounced as one would expect, noting that over 30% of economic activities involve fishing. The beneficiaries of privately owned systems pay a little more per kWh than their compatriots on the government side. However, the number of days without power is minimal with the privately owned systems.
While the benefits of mini-grid deployment cannot be overemphasised, it is necessary to critically assess the challenges of existing models and systems in order to effect the necessary changes to ensure long-term robustness and operability of mini-grid infrastructure in Ghana.
- It is necessary to sensitise communities on opportunities associated with productive use of electricity (PUE) especially in the agricultural (including fishing and agro-processing) sectors. Thus, the Ministry should set aside funds to support PUE sensitisation of beneficiary areas in partnership with CSOs and other government agencies. It is also necessary to educate consumers on energy efficiency practices as well as opportunities associated with productive use of electricity;
- Since it is the hard-to-reach areas such as islands and lakeside communities that present the greatest challenge for grid electrification, government mini-grid projects should target island communities. Also, permit for privately owned mini-grid projects should be granted for island communities. Most of the private companies are presently operating on mainland, where the grid could easily reach in a couple of years.
- There is the need to regulate while simplifying regulatory processes for effective private sector participation. The PURC should include private licensed operators in their tariff setting mechanism to allow for cross-subsidisation, thus ensuring that communities served also enjoy (at least) the same tariff structure as those served by the main grid while the private investors make appropriate profits for their investments. This could attract banks to lend capital to private investors and help reduce pressure on government in seeking donor funding;
- Since mini-grids fit into Ghana’s developmental agenda and can help achieve almost all the SDG targets, it is necessary for development partners to continue to offer financial and technical support to government. Many development partners (UNDP, GIZ, SECO, World Bank, AfDB, DANIDA, EU, USAID, etc.) have already contributed considerably to Ghana’s electrification drive and their assistance are still needed as Ghana enters its last mile in reaching universal access to electricity. UNICEF could look into mini-grids as an opportunity to improve maternal and children wellbeing in targeted areas and thus provide financial support to government;
- The knowledge and skills level of local institutions (VRA, ECG, etc.) should be built to enable them manage such small systems which they are traditionally not used to. The management of these systems could be outsourced to private organisations or community groups who have presence in these communities.
- The VRA, ECG and NEDCo should set aside annual budgetary allocations for mini-grid development in support of government efforts and to ensure accelerated deployment of systems to meet national targets by 2020 and 2030. Though the VRA provided logistical support (e.g. boat transport of equipment and personnel) and financial assistance in deploying existing systems, it can do more by allocating some internally generated funds to establish additional mini-grids as part of its social commitment and in support of government vision of realising Ghana Beyond Aid; and
- The VRA and MoEn should continually monitor energy use patterns of communities and upgrade the capacity of systems to take care of population increases as well as growth of economic activities in order to whip-up interest among local groups. Also, Energy Commission should conduct periodic reliability and technology monitoring to ensure better customer service
This article was authored by Centre for Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development (CEESD) under the V4CP project. The Voice 4 Change (V4C) Partnership is a five-year project funded by the Dutch Government and coordinated by Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV). The project empowers Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to advocate for enabling environment in off-grid electrification; water, sanitation and hygiene and Food and Nutrition Security. The authors are Ing. Edem Cudjoe Bensah (lead), Dr. Julius Ahiekpor, Dr. Francis Kemausuor and Ing. Edward Antwi. Dramani Bukari and Consolata Dassah of SNV, are appreciated for supporting field visits and providing valuable feedback on the article. Eric Banye, project coordinator of V4CP, is acknowledged for facilitating field studies and ensuring provision of logistical support for the project team. Authors can be reach at: firstname.lastname@example.org.