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Is coal fired-power plant the panacea to Ghana’s energy deficit?

Wed, 10 Jul 2013 Source: Oware, Erasmus Kofi

The recent energy crisis in Ghana has highlighted the urgent need for increasing our energy production. As a consequence, the government’s effort at increasing currently installed generation capacity from about 2,500 MW to 5,000 MW by 2016 is a laudable vision. Sonon-Asogli’s alternative proposal of adding 700 MW coal-fired power plant in realizing this prescribed energy target is also intuitively appealing, in light of the fact that coal is the cheapest energy source of choice, worldwide. We must, however, take a minute to ponder this proposal, in order to assess, if indeed, this is the direction that we want to take in addressing our energy shortfall.

In fairness, I must first concede that there are huge economic benefits of coal as a cheap source of energy, specifically, concerning its economic and employment benefits, spanning from its mining through processing, transportation, and up to the end-use. These benefits are particularly maximized in the event that coal happens to be an indigenous resource of the user country. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that most of the big coal user countries also double as coal producing countries. The United States, for instance, possesses a quarter of the recoverable coal reserves in the world. By that endowment, coal naturally accounts for 37.4 % of the US energy production. However, in spite of all the economic benefits of coal, the US Energy Administration reported in 2012 that coal production in the US was falling at an annual rate of 7%, with most of the coal power plants being converted to natural gas. Actually, the number of plants is currently down from 633 coke plants in 2002 to 589 plants in 2011. By the same token, Germany is also investing in cleaner energy sources, even though Germany also has substantial recoverable coal reserves.

Notwithstanding the economic benefits of coal, there are also numerous inherent environmental impacts. More precisely, large quantities of water are required for purifying the coal, for generating steam for production, and finally for cooling. These enormous quantities of highly contaminated water will eventually need to be discharged “somewhere”. In addition, coal has 10 % ash content. It is, therefore, reasonable to estimate that burning 20 million tons of coal per year, as proposed by Sonon-Asogli, will generate 2 million tons of ash every year. In fact, Accra is currently finding it difficult in managing the disposal of solid waste generated from the city. However, in the event of having this proposed coal-fired plant running, Accra will now be burdened with an additional 2 million tons of highly polluted solid waste. It must be emphasized, here, that the entire country generates 3 million tons of solid waste annually.

What is more, our air will also not be spared in this impending pollution saga. Indeed, the US has some of the most efficient coke plants in the world. They have also invested substantially in carbon capture and sequestration projects, in order to efficiently manage carbon emissions, in the future. The US EPA, however, reports that the average emission rates of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide from their “efficient” coal-fired generation are 2,249 lbs/MWh, 13 lbs/MWh, and 6 lbs/MWh, respectively. In contrast, the corresponding emission rates from natural gas powered plants are 1,135 lbs/MWh, 0.1 lbs/MWh, and 1.7 lbs/MWh, respectively. These statistics, in my opinion, should be a motivation for Ghana to be thankful for her recent oil and gas discoveries. In fact, the United States and the World Bank are proposing to limit lending for coal projects in developing countries, due to these aforementioned prohibitive environmental drawbacks.

Honestly, we are fortunate, as a country, to have discovered oil and natural gas in these challenging times in our history. Accordingly, Ghana’s primary focus, at this specific moment, should be on developing her indigenous natural gas industry, for the purpose of fueling her next generation of power plants. This development will, in addition, create employment for the youth, stretching from the downstream end of the gas production industry, up to the end-use.

It is conceivable that Sonon-Asogli will want to diversify into coal-fired plants, against the backdrop of the unreliable supply of natural gas from the West African Gas Pipeline Authority. Nevertheless, it will be in the mutual interest of both Sonon-Asogli and Ghana, if Sonon-Asogli will reconsider investing rather in Ghana’s natural gas production, in an effort to securing a constant supply of the commodity to power its production plants, instead of importing coal from South Africa to be “burnt” in Ghana.

I remark in conclusion, that it is not my intention to discount this commendable effort by Sonon-Asogli in augmenting government’s vision of resolving the country’s energy deficit. Indeed, Ghana needs private companies like Sonon-Asogli in the power sector. However, it is intuitively obvious, in the long run, that the optimal source of energy that Ghana needs urgent assistance in developing is natural gas, which is cleaner and available locally.

By: Erasmus Kofi Oware.

The author is a Ph.D. Student in Environmental Engineering & Science at Clemson University, SC, USA.

Email: eoware@clemson.edu

Columnist: Oware, Erasmus Kofi