Centering Culture in Solar Energy

In Northern Ghana, a social enterprise is integrating history, tradition, and artistic expression into solar expansion.

Ghana has been a leader in West Africa in terms of energy access — some 85 percent of Ghanaians have access to electricity, compared to the regional average of 50 percent. But nearly all of country’s electricity is generated by thermal energy (fueled by oil and gas) and by hydro power. Solar accounts for less than 1 percent of Ghana’s energy mix, despite enormous potential. Tapping that potential will be essential for sustainable expansion of clean-energy access — particularly as climate change reduces precipitation, and as a result reduces hydro capacity, and as population and economic growth increase energy demand. But that expansion must be done right.

ÉnergieRich engineer Issifu Alhassan teaches a spontaneous lesson about solar to primary school children touring Red Clay Art Studio in Northern Ghana. Photo by Dena Montague.

The standard methods of expanding clean-energy access are off-grid solar systems, which supply energy to a single home or business, and mini-grids, which provide electricity to a small group of consumers. But both of these methods face challenges in Northern Ghana. Imported solar panels typically used in these systems are not designed for the local climate. Underperforming and defective panels, as well as high levels of dust and heat, reduce panel capacity. And top down financing structures mean that people on the ground must wait for electricity until governments and international organizations prioritize their needs.

These challenges reflect the fact that the solar industry, which is centralized and fails to recognize innovation on the ground, mirrors colonial structures. It places communities in the perpetual position of recipient rather than innovator. It also fails to address the importance of cultural context that could help spark new ideas and facilitate the expansion of solar.

ÉnergieRich is a social enterprise founded on the belief that historical context, traditional philosophy, and artistic expression matter in solar expansion. We work to spark local production of innovative solar technology by elevating knowledge on the ground. To that end, in the summer of 2021 ÉnergieRich partnered with renowned Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama, students and faculty from Tamale Technical University (TTU), and interns from Ashesi University to launch a powerful solar-innovation workshop in Tamale, Ghana. Located in Northern Ghana, Tamale has some of the highest solar potential in the country.

The first section of the workshop brought together about 200 local K through 12 students at the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, built by Mahama. There they learned basic coding skills, introduction to robotics, and circuit assembly. We also asked students to think about how they can improve their communities with the knowledge they gained there. Our second section took place at the Red Clay Studio — a sprawling 100-acre space, also designed by Mahama, where decommissioned airplanes have been transformed into classrooms and colonial archives are interspersed with Ghanaian contemporary art. In this section, we conducted a solar-panel-building workshop with engineering students from TTU. Students learned that it is possible to build solar panels locally, that they can contribute to the design, and that they can find ways to use technology and local practices to improve their communities. They also had the space to process how innovation can emerge from their own particular vision of technological advancement.

Holding these workshops at art centers did more than add a sense of creativity to science and technology. It also respected traditional culture that in pre-colonial societies saw the arts and sciences as one rather than as opposing disciplines.

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The workshops had a profound impact on the students. Several TTU engineering students expressed an interest in focusing their studies on solar and renewable energy. They generated new ideas about how to upgrade the panels to respond to particular challenges in Northern Ghana, such as developing dust removal and cooling systems, and are looking forward to sharing their knowledge in their communities.

Building on this success, next summer ÉnergieRich will work with Northern Innovation Lab, a center training students from Northern Ghana in technology and entrepreneurship, as well as a team of engineering students from Stanford University’s Society of Black Scientists and Engineers. The students will work to upgrade panel design and integrate automation that connects the panels to web applications that can control and monitor them online for a locally created, sophisticated solar package. Ultimately our goal is to create a permanent space of innovation in Northern Ghana that centers cultural traditions, looks at historical processes that produced inequalities that place local communities on the front lines of climate change, and produces innovative clean energy technology designed specifically for the region.

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