By Sandra Pointel in Accra
Over recent years, concerns to “keep the lights on” have featured high on energy policy agendas and in media headlines, especially in the developed world. Competing concerns to ensure energy security – including geopolitical turbulence associated with oil and gas supply, potential terrorist attacks and attempts to mitigate climate change and transition to low carbon societies – have all provided rational for governments’ actions to avoid businesses and citizens being left in the dark.
In Ghana, where “lights out”, a term commonly used by some locals to describe recurring power cuts, have become symptomatic of growing energy security issues, the drive to keep the lights on has recently taken a new turn. Rather than long-term energy planning, the focus has been on temporary measures to help the government fulfil its pledge to ensure reliable and uninterrupted power during the 2014 World Cup, or at least when the famous Black Stars, Ghana’s national football team, are playing.
Ghana’s national electricity access rate of 72%, is considered relatively successful, ranking third in Sub-Saharan Africa after Mauritius and South Africa. Ghana’s electrification plan has been implemented mainly through grid extension but disparities remain in electricity access, both between rural and urban areas and the poorer Northern regions and the South. But expectations that many households will watch the World Cup on TV have prompted drastic steps to ensure the grid holds up.
The month-long tournament, which kicked off in Sao Paulo on 12 July and culminates on 13 July in Rio, has provided a momentum for ad-hoc energy policy and patriotic energy conservation measures. Once an electricity exporter, Ghana has struck a deal for neighbouring Ivory Coast to supply 50 megawatts to the country during the Black Stars’ matches. The government has also asked the Volta Aluminium Company (VALCO), Ghana’s largest aluminium smelter and largest electricity consumer, to slow down production and reduce consumption to make sure that scheduled blackouts do not interfere with the national team’s games. Furthermore, households have been urged to join the national effort to provide equitable access to football viewing by cutting-down electricity consumption during the crucial 90 minutes. Particularly, the Energy Commission’s new energy conservation campaign, dubbed ‘switch off the freezer’, and backed up by Deputy Minister of Energy and Petroleum John Abdulai Jinapor, is seeking to make up for shortfalls in electricity supply by asking to stop their fridges and power-hungry appliances during the football games.
The additional public spending and the need to “ration electricity so that everyone can watch the World Cup” is somewhat at odds with current pressures on the national budget and the on-going load shedding schedule started few months ago. Over the years, inadequate and shrinking supply combined with growing demand has led to numerous problems in the Ghanaian electricity system, characterised by frequent nationwide power disruptions, blackouts and load shedding. Continued economic growth and increased access to grid electricity have both contributed to increased demand, which is expected to rise further at a 12% per annum in the coming years.
Although long-term investments in the energy sector are crucial, load shedding at peak periods by utilities provide temporary solutions to safeguard generating systems. They usually occur when electricity demand exceeds supply to prevent a total blackout of the entire power system. Utilities reduce demand (load) on the generation system by temporarily switching off grid distribution to different geographical areas. According to the Energy Commission’s recent figures, energy demand stand at 2000 megawatts while the generation capacity are only 1 600 megawatts.
These energy challenges are not new in Ghana. Energy security, often narrowed down security of supply has been prominent in policy discourse over the years. In 2007, for example, the power crisis, which resulted of poor hydrology in the Volta Lake, lasted for up to 12 months and led to a far-reaching power-rationing regime, whereby all categories of electricity consumer went without electricity for at least 12 hours every other day. But this time, Ghana is going through what the media referred to as “The energy crisis” at a period when people require reliable electricity to watch the World Cup.
The “soccer-crazy nation” has come with high expectations for the Black Stars. In Accra, giant screens have emerged in many corners, local bars display TV sets around which neighbours congregate to follow the match while many decide to follow the games at home with friends and family. Although most of cars have been exhibiting the national red, green yellow flag featuring a black star, long before the start of the World Cup, days when the Black Stars are scheduled to play are special. National flags are waved and horns honked relentlessly as a sense of excitement and celebration pre-empting a national victory builds, adding to the general chaos that characterise the busiest streets of the Ghanaian capital city.
In the “Brazil of Africa”, football is a serious matter that agitates even the highest levels of power. Prior to the Black Stars’ first match against the USA, president John Dramani Mahama joined the national frenzy to rally Ghanaians, urging both Christians and Muslims to pray for the team to excel at the World Cup. The game against fierce opponent Germany last Saturday, triggered vivid tension and explosive passion, also merited special comment from the President, who congratulated the national team on their “exciting” game.
Commenters have dismissed the Ghanaian’s government pledge to keep the lights on during the World Cup as “populist” when energy reforms are needed. But the move also brings to the fore the political dimension of energy decisions. This should not be overlooked in a country where “no power, no vote” resonates strongly and where, I am being told powerless communities in rural areas often get connected to the grid ahead of new elections even if they do not meet specific criteria under the on-going national electrification programme. The word on the street, or at or at least from one of my regular football fan taxi drivers, is that a power cut during a Ghana match, could end up in a civil uproar. While this may or may not be exaggerated, a black-out during the World Cup could have a detrimental impact on voters at a time when ordinary people are already resenting endless power cuts that affect their daily lives.
So far the government appears to have kept its promises to “keep the lights on” during the World Cup. The effectiveness of those ad hoc measures will be tested again this afternoon at 4pm Ghana time (5pm GMT) when the Black Stars face Portugal. Once again, hopes are high. While a qualification to the next round will not address national energy challenges in the long-term, it would certainly, although temporarily, boost the moral of many Ghanaians watching the match on screen. Good luck Black Stars.
- Find out more about the STEPS Centre’s energy and climate change work
- Sandra Pointel is a doctoral researcher at SPRU – Science Policy Research Unit at the Unniversity of Sussex. Her research focuses on low carbon development and energy access in Africa.