In the next three years, if all goes as planned, Ghana will build its first two coal-fired electricity plants at Ekumfi Aboano, a coastal fishing community in the Central Region, 78 Km from Accra and 50 Km from Cape Coast. The Volta River Authority – the project proponent – contends that it will generate reasonably priced electricity power, offering a solution to Ghana’s energy needs. Given this, the government has secured a $1.5 billion loan agreement with Shenzhen Energy, a corporation largely owned by the Chinese government, to develop the project.
The construction of these first two coal plants is just the beginning. In addition to the plants themselves, Shenzhen Energy will build a new port facility to accommodate a 50,000 ton berth for the importation of the millions of tons of coal needed to power the plant, from Colombia and South Africa. In addition, after the first plants, the government plans to build additional facilities, for an eventual total capacity of 2,000 megawatts.
We are united in our stance that energy underpins any form of human development and progress – in general and particularly for Ghana – leaving no room for doubt about the need for Ghana to take bold steps in addressing the vicious cycle of its energy poverty. We equally agree that cheaper energy could be a game changer in poverty reduction and growth.
However, we believe that our energy development efforts and choices must be prudent and consistent with high standards. Having studied the available facts surrounding the coal development plan, including the ESIA scoping report put forward by Shenzhen Energy, we are left with more questions than answers. We conclude that Ghana must refrain from the coal agenda, based on the following arguments.
2. Cheaper cost of Electricity
Proponents of the coal plants, including Volta River Authority (VRA), tout coal as a cheaper source of electricity. This claim, however, presents only one side of the story. The price of coal on world markets may currently be low, but mostly because governments the world over are moving away from coal. But we cannot ignore the additional, built-in costs of the plan. Construction, maintenance, debt service, and decades of importing a fuel that we do not have domestically will be extremely costly and will ultimately mean higher energy tariffs. This does not even take into account the environmental and social costs of burning coal, including the toll on public health. The loan behind this coal plant stands at a whopping $1.5 billion. Based on our initial assessment, we have difficulty believing that the coal plant holds promise for cheap energy.
3. Perpetuating Energy Dependency
The justifications advanced for this coal project bring to mind the nearly identical arguments that were marshalled to support the West African Gas Pipeline (WAGP), a project that turned out to be a nightmare. In the middle of the last decade, Ghana incurred hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to finance the construction of the WAGP. We were told that the WAGP would solve our energy challenges by allowing us to import gas from Nigeria’s oil and gas fields. In spite of these rosy promises, Ghanaians still suffer from erratic power supply. We now know that it was unwise to rely on the WAGP as a reliable source of power, and we should apply that lesson here: there is a price to pay when we seek to rely on seemingly cheap and easy, external sources for our energy needs. We cannot discount our vulnerability and potential exposure to supply failures.
The Coal dream is on – on course to consolidate Ghana’s energy dependency. We have no coal here in Ghana, unlike the abundant gas, sunshine, and wind resources that we are naturally blessed with.
4. Exporting outdated and Rejected Technology to Ghana
The proposed project would build “supercritical” coal-fired power plants – a type of coal plant commercialized in the 1960s. This puts coal development in Ghana at odds with the trend in most other countries – including developing countries like China – to build cleaner coal plants or limit coal development altogether because of pollution and climate change. In fact, in March of this year, China halted the construction of coal plants in 15 regions, and the Chinese have passed a law requiring all new coal plants to meet the efficiency of an ultra-supercritical plant or better.
So why should China be allowed to build supercritical plants in Ghana that are so outdated and dirty that they couldn’t even be built legally in China? The Chinese and their Ghanaian allies’ only explanation is that the two proposed 350 MW plants are too small to build more efficiently. But this is an untenable excuse. If the plants are too dirty to build in an acceptable way, then they should not be built at all. Besides, theproject proponents have not discussed alternatives, such as combining the two smaller plants into one 700 MW plant that can use cleaner, ultra-supercritical or IGCC technology.
5. Pollution and Climate Factor
Burning coal emits roughly twice the pollution of burning gas, making it the largest contributor to climate change. Noting that the average lifespan of a coal plant is over 50 years, the International Energy Agency has called for inefficient coal-fired plants to be phased out as a means to meet the global climate targets. In fact, experts believe that solving the threat of global warming will require countries to capture and store the carbon dioxide released by coal plants, but the plans for the Ghanaian plants do not include carbon capture and storage.
In addition, burning coal releases toxins into the atmosphere such as neurotoxic mercury, which will enter human bodies through the fish on which the Ekumfi Aboano community relies, and sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain and damages water bodies and agricultural land.
6. Leadership, Inspiration and Contradiction
It cannot be for nothing that Ghana’s former president, J.A. Kufuor, was a former UN Climate Change Envoy. Through the leadership of President Kufuor, Ghana espoused the need for bold action on climate change, notably during the 2015 international climate talks in Paris last year. But by committing to build these plants, we lock ourselves into over a half-century of large-scale greenhouse gas emissions. Ghana’s plan to tread the coal path thus stands at odds with our leadership role in the international climate change arena.
Similarly, in a Presidential statement last year, China’s President Xi promised to “strengthen green and low-carbon policies and regulations with a view to strictly controlling public investment flowing into projects with high pollution and carbon emissions both domestically and internationally.” This project would be a direct violation of the Chinese President’s commitment.
In any case, we ought to be seen to be consistent with our commitment when President Mahama at COP21 in Paris said that Ghana is determined to achieve ambitious cuts in greenhouse gases.
On the strength of the above, we herewith make the following demands:
We must refrain from the coal agenda and pursue a transformative energy system consistent with global development trends, while charting the path towards a people-centered energy future based on renewable energy.
Ghana must take steps not to violate our country’s obligations under the Sustainable Development Goals, which enjoin countries to take step that ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. The recent Paris climate change agreement states that ‘all Parties should strive to formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.’
Instead of burdening Ghana and the rest of the world with high-carbon, polluting infrastructure, China, the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy, should work with countries like Ghana to create a clean energy future. Halt the coal initiative and redirect investment into renewable energy.
Signed: 27 July 2016