NEWS Industry Insight: Hydropower: Building Sustainability into the East African Power Pool

In Africa, hydropower is one of the largest renew­able power con­trib­u­tors to energy gen­er­a­tion, how­ever with cli­mate change wreak­ing havoc across the con­ti­nent, water is becom­ing a scarce com­mod­ity in cer­tain areas.

Dr Daniel M. Kam­men, found­ing direc­tor of the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory (RAEL), and Inter­na­tional Rivers’ Lori Pot­tinger dis­cuss hydropower at length, iden­ti­fy­ing the cli­mate risks and the addi­tion of alter­na­tive renew­able tech­nolo­gies in the East Africa region.

The African energy sec­tor is gen­er­ally speak­ing, under­funded, under-​​capacitated and in some places embat­tled. An esti­mated 70% of Africans have no access to grid-​​based electricity.

Black­outs and energy short­falls are the norm in many places. Given this dif­fi­cult land­scape, tak­ing advan­tage of oppor­tu­ni­ties to increase reli­a­bil­ity, develop local sus­tain­able resources, and sup­port both on– and off-​​grid users is a pow­er­ful oppor­tu­nity not to be missed.

The East African Power Pool (EAPP), which serves 10 coun­tries, is at a crit­i­cal junction.

It has the poten­tial to play a key role in dri­ving energy invest­ments in the region for years to come but its heavy focus on costly large dams – and the lack of analy­sis on the risks that cli­mate change brings to those invest­ments – puts the region at high risk.

The plen­ti­ful renew­able energy resources avail­able to the region in the form of solar, wind, bio­mass and geot­her­mal energy mean that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Hydropower faces cli­mate risks

As cur­rently con­fig­ured, the EAPP will rely heav­ily on some of Africa’s largest most con­tro­ver­sial hydropower dams, includ­ing Ethiopia’s Gibe III Dam on the Omo River, and Grand Ethiopian Renais­sance Dam on the Blue Nile.

Cur­rently, about a quar­ter of elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated in EAPP coun­tries comes from hydropower (higher than the global aver­age but accept­able). Guture invest­ments will cre­ate a much greater depen­dence on hydropower at a time of chang­ing river flows and other cli­mate disruptions.

The EAPP has iden­ti­fied hydropower projects that will almost dou­ble the EAPP’s cur­rent installed capac­ity, which means that an esti­mated 60% of the grid’s power will come from Ethiopian hydropower gen­er­a­tion alone.

Risk analy­sis

Not enough infor­ma­tion exists about the risks involved in hydropower dams in East Africa to jus­tify such heavy growth in hydropower.

The EAPP Mas­ter Plan does not include an analy­sis of the effects of cli­mate change on the regional power strat­egy. It makes no attempt to address the impacts of pos­si­ble droughts on the region’s economy.

The EAPP would be wise to shift its pri­or­i­ties to include a much greater pro­por­tion of renew­able energy sources like solar, geot­her­mal and wind, and to take greater account of cli­mate risks to large hydropower projects.

Bridg­ing the energy divide

Decen­tralised renew­able energy sources are also more appro­pri­ate for bridg­ing East Africa’s large energy divide.

Mini-​​grids and com­mu­nity energy pro­grammes can greatly build local energy access and eco­nomic oppor­tu­nity, which can be the ‘seeds’ of grow­ing regional grids.

The clean, non-​​hydro energy poten­tial of the East African region is vast and devel­op­ing it can lead to strong eco­nomic, social and envi­ron­men­tally ben­e­fi­cial development.

A renew­ables based energy sec­tor can meet the rapidly grow­ing energy needs of the region, mak­ing addi­tional progress in increas­ing energy access, in a way that achieves envi­ron­men­tal sustainability.

Inno­v­a­tive solutions

With so many peo­ple liv­ing off-​​grid in the region, a bal­anced focus on grid-​​connectivity and on pay-​​as-​​you go and other off-​​grid and mini-​​grid clean energy solu­tions is a key step that gov­ern­ments in the region can enable, and that the inter­na­tional aid and busi­ness com­mu­ni­ties can support.

Our recent work on the ‘information-​​energy’ nexus[1] and the strong per­for­mance of pri­vate providers of off-​​grid solar-​​based energy ser­vices (such as M-​​KOPA and Sun­ny­Money) indi­cates that diver­si­fied strate­gies have the poten­tial to build capac­ity to serve all in the east African region.

It has been esti­mated that the region’s solar resource alone is suf­fi­cient to pro­vide the needed energy resources for each nation within the EAPP.

Avail­able non-​​hydro renew­able elec­tric­ity sources account for roughly 80% of the iden­ti­fied hydropower projects in the EAPP Mas­ter Plan.

Leapfrog­ging hydro to a broad base of renew­ables would be far less risky in a chang­ing climate.

Lead­ing by example

A good exam­ple of an energy sec­tor that is already plan­ning for cli­mate risks to hydropower is Kenya. The east African coun­try has increased its per­cent­age of climate-​​safe geot­her­mal elec­tric­ity while reduc­ing its depen­dence on hydropower.

Kenya is on pace to expand its geot­her­mal pro­duc­tion from just over 500MW to over 3,000MW in just a few years.

Geot­her­mal is today the least-​​costly form of on-​​grid gen­er­a­tion in Kenya, with costs as low at 8.5 cents/​kWh, one third of the fos­sil fuel costs.

The geot­her­mal story in Kenya is not unique. Wind could rival geot­her­mal as a growth indus­try. New dis­cov­er­ies (such as the incred­i­bly rich wind resource at Lake Turkana).

Chal­lenges do remain, with the off-​​grid pop­u­la­tion and expan­sion of energy pro­grammes for the poor being key issues (but where efforts from the grow­ing pri­vate sec­tor pay-​​as-​​you-​​go pro­grammes of M-​​KOPA, Sun­ny­Money and oth­ers are mak­ing progress).

At the indus­trial level, how­ever, the expan­sion of clean, on-​​grid energy can also bring about new indus­trial potential.

Even while tak­ing the pru­dent step to dra­mat­i­cally reduce the planned use of hydropower, Kenya is plan­ning a new indus­trial cor­ri­dor built around clean geot­her­mal, wind, and solar energy.

What is tak­ing place in Kenya can and should hap­pen else­where in the region.

About the authors:

This edi­to­r­ial piece is based on the find­ings of “A Clean Energy Vision for East Africa: Plan­ning for Sus­tain­abil­ity, Reduc­ing Cli­mate Risks and Increas­ing Energy Access” (2015) by Daniel Kammen.

Dan Kammen

Dr Daniel M. Kam­men is the Class of 1935 Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, with par­al­lel appoint­ments in the Energy and Resources Group, the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­icy, and the Depart­ment of Nuclear Engineering.

He was appointed by then Sec­re­tary of State Hilary Clin­ton in April 2010 as the first energy fel­low of the new Envi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Part­ner­ship for the Amer­i­cas (ECPA) initiative.

Lori Pottinger

Lori Pot­tinger, works on the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Africa Pro­gramme at Inter­na­tional Rivers. Pot­tinger has worked on Africa’s rivers since the 1990’s. “A healthy river is such a remark­able thing, it gives so much to so many peo­ple; we’re work­ing across the con­ti­nent to keep Africa’s rivers healthy and flow­ing. If I wasn’t work­ing on rivers, I’d be doing what I can to save the world’s oceans and coral reefs.”

[1] Alstone, P., Ger­shen­son, D. and Kam­men, D. M. (2015) “Decen­tral­ized energy sys­tems for clean elec­tric­ity access“, Nature Cli­mate Change5, 305 – 314.  DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2512

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