Time to think big on energy

Critics of Ghana’s planned nuclear power plant worry it may be the beginning of an apocalypse. It isn’t.

The backlash to the announcement that Ghana will build its first 1,000 megawatts (MW) nuclear power plant in about 10 years, should Parliament pass the Nuclear Regulatory Power Bill, has been predictable but still puzzling.

Here is what would happen if the bill does not pass into law: Ghana will continue to construct increasing numbers of more-polluting hydrocarbon-fired thermal plants; not to mention that its neighbours in Africa and elsewhere would nonetheless go ahead with their planned nuclear power plant projects, making their economies, most probably, more cost competitive over the long term.

This is not a scenario that we would have to imagine; it is unfolding before our very eyes. In one case, one of the central measures announced by President Mahama to turn around Ghana’s current economic challenges is the directive for urgent measures to be taken to expedite the coming on stream of domestic gas supplies to provide cheaper fuel for power generation. It has also been disclosed that Ghana would by end of August sign a new deal with ENI concerning the country’s Sankofa field to explore more than a trillion cubic feet of gas in addition to 50,000 barrels of oil daily, all to secure feedstock for the country’s increasing number of thermal plants. As well, the lobby for coal-fired generation plants is also growing stronger by the day, since emphasis on electricity production is presently heavily tilted towards cheap and secure energy supply sources.

In the other case, notwithstanding global apprehensions to nuclear plants caused by both Russia’s Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disasters, the number of new projects speaks volumes. There are reportedly, 64 nuclear power plants currently under construction worldwide. Asia, the continent of both disasters, accounts for 41: China alone has 26 with Saudi Arabia building 10 plants while the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are constructing two each. The United Kingdom has two ongoing projects. On January 27, 2013, Bulgaria voted 61% to have nuclear power plants.

NuclearRenaissance083013More interestingly, emerging economic powerhouses on the African continent, Nigeria and South Africa, are both earnestly pushing their nuclear programmes. So, especially with Ghana’s proximity to Nigeria, whether the former goes nuclear or not, it still is within the catchment of a potential Nigerian disaster.

Though proponents of nuclear generation, including Professor Benjamin Jabez Botwe Nyarko, like to highlight greatly improved safety mechanisms incorporated into the new generation of nuclear plants, most critics point to Ghana’s poor maintenance culture.

It is true that Ghana today is not as efficient as the advanced countries that utilise nuclear power plants but there are other countries less stable, politically, than Ghana which are operating nuclear facilities. Ghana’s Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC) has also been able to manage a small reactor with enriched uranium for years without any mishap. That may be a small facility but undoubtedly some competence would have been built from its handling.

It can further be argued that complex facilities in health delivery, in electricity generation, among others have been managed to global standards in the country, even with its challenges with maintenance. The fact is that, over the years, Ghana has developed technical competence in some aspects of national life where conscious effort has been made to deliver world class services.

Another critically important, but largely overlooked, factor in the whole debate is that Ghana’s nuclear power programme will have to meet global best practices and standards as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must approve and monitor every aspect of its development and operations.

A strategic partnership arrangement or a build-own-operate arrangement, as is preferred by most first-timers, is likely to be the case with Ghana, thereby assuring that the country will learn the ropes along the way and not be burdened with all the related challenges in running such high-risk facilities.

After getting over the safety concerns, as Ghana is sure to without much fuss, the major consideration will be what advantages nuclear energy provides over the other sources. Nuclear’s cost-effectiveness and efficiency makes it a compelling choice for many countries.

Ghana’s long term strategic energy plan envisages about 10% contribution by renewable energy sources, comprising solar, wind, mini-hydros – now that all of the country’s major hydro potential has been exploited with the completion of the 400MW Bui Dam – and nuclear energy.

With the remaining hydro sources scattered widely across country, and making it more expensive to be integrated into the national grid, thermal generation, utilizing gas and coal will be the next major contributor to Ghana’s generation mix.

Securing reliable gas supply has however been a major challenge to the country. That has forced government to look more inward to develop indigenous gas. Ghana’s total volume of indigenous gas reserves presently will be about enough for the Volta River Authority (VRA) whose demand for gas for power generation stands currently at 400MMscfd.

Ghana obviously holds much potential for more gas discoveries. That may have informed government’s confidence in positioning indigenous gas as the game-changer in Ghana’s economic turnaround. But experts are arguing that, it may be placing too much reliance on an energy source that may not be available in adequate and secure quantities over the next couple of years to ensure the attainment of government’s envisaged 5,000MW total electricity generation by 2016.

Of the renewable energy sources, work on wind sources is still rudimentary while solar is obviously the investors’ choice. Of 23 investors licensed by the Energy Commission to construct RE plants, 22 are solar projects. And while investors are applying to establish individual plants generating between 50MW to 250MW, the Executive Secretary of the Energy Commission, Dr. Ofosu Ahenkorah, says total grid solar contribution to the national generation mix could be capped at only 50MW, or 100MW in the extreme case.

“This is because, per unit cost of electricity generated by solar is far more expensive, almost four times that of hydro, thus making it unaffordable to the average Ghanaian consumer,” Dr. Ahenkorah explained adding that Ghana’s peak electricity demand is at night, when solar is largely unavailable, or could be available at extra cost, further reducing its attractiveness as source to fill the current demand gap confronting the country.

With demand for electricity estimated to be growing at a 12% annual rate, the renewables wouldn’t constitute a critical game-changer, except to augment supplies from other more reliable and inexpensive sources.

The challenges experienced by the country in producing power from thermal sources, fuelled by hydrocarbon resources, elevates the attractiveness of nuclear to heights it has never enjoyed in times past. It is not the argument that thermal generation wouldn’t be an increasingly important electricity generation source, but it will certainly not be the only source, if Ghana is taking cost effectiveness, reliability of supplies and environmental considerations into account.

It is estimated that, by weight, a kilogramme of uranium, the energy fuel for nuclear plants, generates 50,000 kilowatts hour (kWh) of electricity as compared to the same weight of crude oil and coal which produce 4kWh and 3kWh respectively. The latter two are also obviously more environmentally unfriendly and less reliable in their supply.

Compared to hydro and thermal plants, the initial cost of construction seems to higher with nuclear plants. But the difference isn’t really much. In perspective, the 400MW Bui Dam cost in excess of US$700million. Ghana’s planned first nuclear power plant will generate 1,000MW and is estimated to cost us$2.5 billion to construct. But given its low running costs, compared to the volatility of crude and gas prices, as well as their unreliability in supplies, a nuclear power plant ends up several times over more cost-effective.

Given Ghana’s critical need for cheap, reliable electricity supplies if the country is to be a competitive industrialized country within the next decade, to enable it move to the upper end of a middle class economy, then ultra-cheap electric energy supplies is an imperative. Nuclear power plants wouldn’t be just an option but a necessity.

Newly independent Ghana, under its visionary President, Kwame Nkrumah, was one of the first countries to have embraced nuclear technology, as a game-changer in the industrialization processes of viable countries that required massive supplies of reliable and inexpensive electric power; but the narrative about the dangers of nuclear plants deepened apprehensions about the technology, to the extent that while advanced countries worked to make the technology safer, Nkrumah’s successors turned a blind eye to these new developments while inadvertently, or perhaps deliberately, further deepening the myth about the technology.

Ghana’s exit from the nuclear technology world since the overthrow of Nkrumah was not really dramatic and complete, since subsequently the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission has functioned creditably, though on a limited scale, the country finding its way back wouldn’t be really difficult. Perhaps now is the time for Ghana to think big and come out of the cold. It only needs to take this one bold step of creating the legal and regulatory regime.