Ghana’s solar boom: Smart power grid or ‘the most exciting story in the next 10 years’?

Ghana is a long way from Silicon Valley, but thanks to a tech boom facilitated by its population of less than 30 million, the once-disadvantaged country is experiencing an impressive technological renaissance. While local tech firms have benefitted from a strong Internet of Things (IoT) push fueled by large global brands like Dell, Intel, and Samsung, relatively untouched is the area of clean technology, especially clean energy. As recently as 2013, only 10 percent of Ghana’s power was generated from renewable sources. But two weeks ago, the West African nation became the first in Africa to generate all of its electricity from solar in a one-year experiment.

Ghana’s commercial rooftop solar market has been heating up in recent years. According to global market research firm Forest Research Associates, a surge in projects will soon send the market soaring to $350 million by 2022.

U.S. solar manufacturing firm SunPower has been delivering solar modules to Ghana as of late. That’s a big deal for Ghana’s green movement because SunPower is among the world’s largest producers of thin-film solar panels. Thin-film panels, made with a chemical process, can be a cheaper alternative to traditional, multi-layer photovoltaic (PV) panels. And they tend to last longer, which is of concern in a country with a high rate of electricity outages.

The sky is the limit when it comes to renewable energy in Ghana. “The future of Ghana depends on sustainable technologies,” said Xavier K. Oculi, president of the World Bank Ghana Office, after a panel discussion at the 15th Annual Ghana Energy Forum. “We have a lot of financing companies, investment banks, and our government working in this area and making Ghana a center of excellence.”

Ghana now ranks 14th in the world when it comes to clean-energy financing, according to Empower, a research organization that helps to raise awareness about clean technologies. That figure shoots up to 7th for Africa. (By comparison, Japan and the United States are number 1 and 2, respectively.)

One of the reasons why clean-energy financing in Africa is slowly catching up is that there is tremendous room for growth. “Wind and solar can be achieved with small systems. It makes sense to actually reduce the cost of electricity so that every household in Ghana can get access to clean energy,” said Tom Hage, an Empower analyst.

Though some investors initially balked at investing in solar power, technology is helping make the products more affordable. When Victoria Tuffailor, CEO of the sustainable solar company SolarPro, met with investors to pitch a solar systems financing plan for Ghana in 2015, she had no more than a handful of options. Now, she says she can attract $20 million per year.

The possibility of cheaper solar power in Ghana has already played a role in attracting major investment. In July, Paris-based battery manufacturer Solid Solar bought a majority stake in Silverthorne Technologies, a Ghanaian startup that makes thin-film solar panels. The investment values the firm at $40 million.

“I told them, ‘You don’t have to come here with $15 million. You can come with $100 million and you’ll get $25 million for every megawatt-hour delivered,’” said Michael Chriscowos, CEO of Silverthorne Technologies.

With industrial giants from China to India playing off Ghana’s investments in clean technology, Ghanaian leaders hope the country is on the verge of a transformative industrial revolution. “The most exciting story in the next 10 years is making power available to all,” said Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo.


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