Hydropower In Africa: An Overview

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Last week, Joshua Hill posted an article on CleanTechnica titled Hydropower “Not Necessary” To Meet Global Climate & Energy Goals, Says WWF & Nature Conservancy. In summary, the report claims that there is no need to increase hydropower production in the world because of the rapid decreasing costs of solar, wind, and storage.

With 100,000 dams in the United States on almost every available site, hydropower produces 102,867 MW of electricity or 12% of total US electricity generation. The US is saturated and there is a strong movement to remove dams. Africa, three times the size of the US with also about 3 times more people, has only 35,339 MW of hydropower generation, but that amount accounts for 22% of Africa’s power production. Six nations in Africa get over 90% of their power from hydro – Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Zambia, Ethiopia, Togo, and Sudan. More important is the fact that less than 10% of Africa’s hydropower potential has been tapped. Sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the major rivers in Africa are, already has plans to more than double its hydro production by 2030.

Hydropower has great attractions for Africa. First like coal, nuclear, hydropower, and geothermal are base load power. Except for South Africa, which is highly dependent on coal and its two nuclear power plants (see my article on South Africa), there are no other nuclear power plants in Africa and very few coal plants. So along with geothermal power in Kenya, hydropower is the main source of baseload power. Moreover, while hydropower cannot be turned on or off as quickly as gas peaker plants or electric batteries, the amount of energy being produced can be varied according to need much more easily that coal or nuclear power plants. This is a major plus for African countries which have very low consumption of electricity. Dams also provide flood control, recreational activities on their lakes, and the possibility of irrigation. These uses are often complimentary but sometimes in competition.

There are negatives. First, although the water, like wind and sun, is free, the upfront costs of building a large dam is a major hurdle, needing substantial financing from the World Bank, the Chinese, or other sources. There are also negative environmental downsides so that every major dam is opposed by environmental organizations – they usually lose. People are often displaced. While they are supposed to be compensated, the amounts are usually low and sometimes the payments never reach them. Usually, the displaced people have no or little input into the decisions that are life important for them.

For a country that significantly depends on hydropower, the biggest problem is drought. If there is insufficient rainfall — and with climate change this is going to happen more frequently — the power production is reduced and load shedding (planned, regular blackouts) is implemented to the detriment of users, particularly, manufacturing companies.

Here are some major dams under construction or planned in sub-Saharan Africa.

1. Ethiopia, Gibe III dam on the Gibe River with 1870MW of capacity. This dam was completed in 2015 and took two years to fill. The Gibe River supplies 90% of the water to Lake Turkana in Kenya. During these two years it took to fill up the lake behind the dam, Lake Turkana fell by two meters of its mean thirty meter depth. One of the uses of the dam is to irrigate cotton and sugar cane crops. If this happens on the large scale that is planned, Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert and alkaline lake, may well dry up. Since 1870MW is much more electricity than Ethiopia now consumers, 400MW will go to Kenya, 200MW to Sudan, and 200MW to Djibouti. The problem here is that the transmission lines have not yet been built.

2. Ethiopia, Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile with a planned 6450MW of capacity, making it the largest dam in Africa. It is 80% complete and supposed to begin some electricity production next year . It will take 5 to 15 years to fill the reservoir behind the dam. Since Egypt, for historical reasons, claims most of the water from the Nile River, it is upset by this dam and, according to documents released by Wikileaks, at one time threatened to bomb the dam. Since this output is much more than Ethiopia needs, much of it will need to be exported, but to whom and what price?

3. Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Inga III on the Congo River with an output of 4800MW. This again is more output than the DRC needs, so South Africa has an agreement to receive 2400MW of the output. Details have not been agreed upon and so it is not clear if the price will be acceptable to South Africa.  This dam, which has begun construction, is being done by Spanish and Chinese firms – the Chinese firm is the same one that built the Three Rivers Gorge dam in China, the largest in the world. There is also a planned Inga IV dam at the same site with a humongous output of almost 40,000MW making it two times the size of the Three Rivers Gorge dam. The $80 billion cost may be insurmountable. Who is going to use all this energy which is more than the current total hydropower output now of the whole continent?

Back to the original report Joshua Hill summarized. With the falling cost of wind, solar, and storage, is all this new hydropower in Africa necessary? I realized a long time ago that when a mega-project begins, it is almost impossible to stop its momentum. The dams I have mentioned above and others that are already under construction will more than likely be completed. Will they become “white elephants”? In some cases, yes.

Except in North Africa, wind, solar, and storage in Africa is still considerably more expensive than elsewhere in the world, for example, those extremely low rates for solar projects in the Middle East. The Lake Turkana wind farm in Kenya, the largest wind farm presently in Africa, is selling its electricity at 8 cents per kwh to Kenya Power. The Garissa Solar Power Station, also in Kenya, is selling its output at 5.5 cents per kwh. Old hydro dams are selling their output at 3 cents per kwh, but I have my doubts that these new projects can sell their electricity at that price. Then as wind, solar, and storage prices decline further, large hydropower will become uneconomical.

A further advantage will be that many smaller wind and solar projects can be built quickly, with modest fiscal needs, in locations closer to where the energy will be used. In the long run, but not the short run, I agree with the authors of the article. There will no longer be a need for large dams to be built, even in Africa.

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