The insatiable and sometimes vaulting ambitions of man takes him beyond the shores of life and waves of challenges to a defined threshold of redefining the scope of business and purpose. Sometimes, it is the reflexive prod of tapping into the inexhaustible trappings of nature to satisfy the permanent utility demands of mankind.
SunPower Innovations has navigated the plains of the renewable energy industry for five years and has, consequently, risen above the ashes like the phoenix in a relatively novel market space like Ghana. For the CEO of SunPower Innovations, Mr. Ernest Amissah, it has been an admixture of challenges and bliss, as he recounts his journey by saying, “It’s been challenging, it’s been gut wrenching and it has also been very exciting.”
Traversing through challenges
Challenges, for most businesses, are the pathfinders to success; and for SunPower Innovations, the skepticism of people as well as the costly nature of this new technology have been a major challenge to the growth of the business.
“I say it’s challenging because it’s a very capital intensive industry and also it’s new. So, it’s rather sad that in Africa things get here late. For instance, when they introduce a new car in America or Europe, they will drive it till it gets old then somebody will bring it to Africa for us to drive. It’s the same with solar. Renewable energy is a new technology so, before it comes down– before we can comprehend its details– it’ll take time. That’s what makes it challenging.”
Also, he made mention of another area which was equally challenging: finance, "where the banks don’t understand it and major off-takers like business owners also don’t understand it. You know, they can’t speak the language; and like anything new that is viable, you see that there are ‘fly-by-night companies’ that will show up and say they do solar, they do this, but the challenge is they can’t do it well so they mess up the market. That’s what has made it challenging.”
Lessons learned after five years
Lessons form part of the growth of any individual and for SunPower Innovations, one word stands tall and encapsulates its five years’ experience: Tenacity. “I mean, tenacity is one word for everything because it has patience, it has guts, grits, you name it; so that’s what I’ve learned. In Ghana, you have to be tenacious or you won’t survive.”
Truth– the guarantee for selling our products
One of the implicit ingredients in SunPower Innovations' recipe for success and survival in the bustling Ghanaian economy, according to Mr. Amissah, has always been the truth serum coursing through the vein of his company.
“I have a Lebanese friend and he’s very successful and I was talking to him one day about my challenges: how I’m trying to sell my systems out there and I’m not breaking through -This was about two and a half years ago and he said: ‘Do you know what I do? I just speak the truth.’ He said ‘in Ghana, all you have to do is to speak the truth and you’ll be overwhelmed how much business you get’. So I took that advice. What we do is, when you give us a project, we don’t cut corners; we do it well. We try to beat your expectations and that’s it. And so, a lot of what we do is by word of mouth. We don’t have billboards in town, we don’t do radio ads but word of mouth. Just speaking the truth, as in doing the right thing.”
The Context between Solar Power and hydroelectric or thermal alternatives
Without contention, the sun’s replete and largely inexhaustible prospect is susceptible to low visibility, especially as a profit-garnering venture, except for the shrewd and hawkeyed businessman. By comparison, Mr. Amissah highly recommends solar power to its hydroelectric and thermal alternatives.
In his words, “hydro has been with us for a long time, and you know the capex in developing hydro is high, in terms of capital expenditure. Thermal power also has its high maintenance cost like hydro, but unlike the former, it uses fossil fuel to generate electricity and this subsequently causes pollution. The problem of global warming is largely attributed to such pollutions due to its low overall efficiency. So thermal is not sustainable; it pollutes the earth. It’s very expensive to maintain it, as in, to keep fuel going to the plants; regular routine maintenance of the plant too is very expensive. Hydro, too is expensive for a middle income country like us.”
To him, “we can’t build another dam like Akosombo; it’s very expensive. Then thermal, it’s very expensive to keep buying crude or get gas to fire the plants up. But what about renewable energy? Initially it was very expensive, now it’s rather cheaper than these two resources. It’s free energy from God- the sun’s energy; it’s insatiable. You just have to tweak it up and do it well then it becomes very sustainable for you. So, I think, solar is the way to go.”
Riding against the tide of the pandemic
The pandemic has cast a long shadow on businesses globally. But, in spite of the sad tales of companies folding up, losing ground and eventually succumbing to the grim of the pandemic, the tale of SunPower Innovations recounted by the founder is one of the sun breaking through dark clouds.
“I think we’ve been blessed because, we are kind of like a utility company, even though there’s a pandemic we still need energy to cook, to build whatever for the hospitals. So, that emergency bit about energy delivery is what’s keeping us afloat. But it’s still affecting us; we had to let some few people go; cash flow is low.”
Ironically, along with the baggage which the pandemic darkened the door of the world with, it sharply revealed an ignored pitfall within the business fraternity, sectors and organizations globally. Indeed, the story holds true also in the renewable energy industry.
“I think globally; this pandemic has highlighted what energy sources is bankable or is sustainable enough to withstand any challenges like what corona has brought to the world. I read a lot from different platforms and most countries out there are actually championing solar energy because of the effect of the corona. So, if you have a thermal plant at, for example, Aboadze and you have 1000 workers there and one gets corona; can you imagine? Let’s say the instrumentation office, somebody got corona there and then you know how it spreads, then all of a sudden 20 people in the instrumentation department alone are gone, and these are high level technical fields; how do you replace them? That plant now has to be shut down. What about solar? So now, the world has created a real case scenario that: look, it’s solar.”
Renewable energy isn’t the preserve for Ghana’s economy, and to the SunPower innovator, even skeptics like the American
President has had a much stronger affinity with the possibilities trapped in the sun.
“So, even now in America where Trump was saying that solar energy sucks… I think there’s a big project that was signed this year even within this pandemic period for 400megawatts or so somewhere in the US, so it’s here to stay.”
Mr. Amissah insists, “in the next five years or ten years, nobody is going to build and try to drag a gridline in there. No government will pay for power lines to be taken to a village somewhere that doesn’t have grid. So, solar is cheaper, it’s sustainable, it’s climate friendly; so it’s here to stay".
Mid-term plans for SunPower Innovations
So long as the earth rotates on its axis and goes full circle, the pandemic certainly won’t stop diehard business folks from dreaming, working harder and expanding their businesses to accommodate new plans. And SunPower's midterm plans hover on the fringes of incorporating as many Ghanaians as possible into the solar energy drive.
“We’ve realized that people doing solar in Africa, not only Ghana but in Africa, are the middle class or upper echelon– wealthy people. They are the ones who are able to afford like a good hybrid system of solar. So, what we want to do is, we want to make it affordable to the lower income population. Thus, we are launching an initiative that we call ‘Tokanea’ and we think, it is where we can reach out to the masses. So, somebody in Tamale, somebody at Nzulezu can come and buy one panel or two panels just to power their room, power their very small application systems... it’s affordable and it’s also really available to the market… and we think it’s also going to help us leapfrog into other countries.”
Multiplicity of purpose
Diversification for most companies is indicative of growth and progress, laced with creative propensity and with that, Mr. Amissah isn’t quite ready to rest on his oars yet as his next brainchild thrives on sustainability.
“A lot of what I do is based on sustainability. We are trying to launch an app-based delivery company called ‘FABRAHA’. It’s on-demand delivery just like Uber. For instance, you want flowers, cake or you’ve bought some slippers online; you just go on the app, then you put in your address and then pay for it. Someone will then deliver it and you can track how long it takes and all that. We are about to launch that God willing this year before Christmas.
“Then, I also do sustainable housing. Right now, we are doing sustainable housing for students, as in hostels and it’s purely green– powered by solar, the water supply is not tapped into Ghana water… we do wells and we have a filtration system, we do rain harvesting. The first project is coming up at Takoradi Technical University and we’re doing it simultaneously with Cape Coast Technical University.”
Regulation on the Energy sector
Clearly, the economic climate of a country incontrovertibly influences the blossoming inclinations of companies. Where there are constricting regulations, plans of these entities are furtively curtailed overnight. SunPower Innovations is quite aware of these regulations, but boldly calls for a more collaborative effort from government.
“At the moment the renewable energy space has a lot of regulatory issues. It’s like you’re competing with ECG and for me I don’t know why ECG feels threatened. If I were ECG, I will start revamping my strategy to go renewable. Meaning, I’ll partner smaller companies that are coming up in the renewable energy space rather than think that they’re a threat. Like I said, five, ten years down the line, who will come to you? And you can force the horse to the riverside but you can’t force it to drink. Government can’t say that buy ECG by force. You can choose not to buy ECG. People have generators in their homes and they run their generators. So, why don’t you (ECG) partner us? The main issue with renewable energy on the big scale or utility scale is the fact that, we have regulatory restrictions.”
Admittedly, SunPower doesn’t operate in a vacuum but regulated by the instituted regulatory body being the Energy Commission, and in the spirit of cohesiveness in making the system work for the universal good of all and sundry, Mr. Amissah made some salient suggestions by stating that, “at the moment there’s something we call net metering, where you can do solar and you sell it to ECG, and you also take power from ECG; so, at the end of the month ECG gives you a meter that can net-off 'how much did you give me, how much did I also give you? This is the balance; you owe me or I owe you'. That system was introduced in Ghana, I think in West Africa, we did well in introducing that system; unfortunately, we’ve suspended it. I think it’s canceled because of threats that everybody will do it and who will buy the power from ECG?
“We have very expensive power to pay the IPPs. Who’s going to pay that money? But, ECG can tell everybody to do solar. After all, the law says that energy-mix and renewable is supposed to be 10 percent, and we’ve not even hit 2 percent; so what’s the fear? If you’ve gotten to 7 percent and you are scared that you’ll exceed the 10 percent quota, then you can say ok, let’s shut down some projects… So, these are the issues we have but anyway, I listened to Jack Ma…, he was on a panel in a forum and he said even if the regulations are not there, keep doing what you have to do and eventually time will catch up.”
SunPower Innovations, a lodestar in renewable energy
There is a myth that we must lower our standard of living in order to avoid the effects of climate change but the reality is that alternative solutions do not sacrifice comfort. Essentially, the benefits which accounts for renewable energy bounces off its rays on the wall of insatiability, but the encyclopedic and incisive thoughts on the benefits of renewable energy espoused by Mr. Amissah were unraveling.
“Just think about all the savings the government will have so that monies can be channeled into other areas: education, infrastructure– the savings we can have. Think about the jobs that we can create if we have a very robust renewable energy sector. Within four and half to five years, we are directly about 70 workers and indirectly about 120 workers. So, think about it and we are just one entity. Think about the ripple effect if it’s a supported industry and it’s booming.
“It will reduce unemployment; it will save the world. In Ghana or in Africa, most people don’t talk about climate change, but climate change is real, all over the world. For the first time in Ghana, look at the weather, …and so we, genuinely, have to think about climate change.”