Clean Energy: New Study Recommends Less Hydro for East Africa

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

This article originally appeared in

Kenya's Olkaria Geothermal plant
Kenya's Olkaria Geothermal plant

East African countries must diversify their energy mix beyond hydro and incorporate mini-grids for greater rural electrification, according to a jointly published report released today, ‘A Clean Energy Vision for East Africa: Planning for Sustainability, Reducing Climate Risks and Increasing Energy Access (2015)’.

The East African Power Pool (EAPP) has the potential to play a major role in driving energy investments in the region, but its heavy focus on large dams such as the Gibe III Dam, puts the region at high risk from climate change.

The report recommends the EAPP 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.

Sustainability of the East African Power Pool

Currently, about a quarter of electricity generated in EAPP countries comes from hydropower, and with future investments creating a greater dependence on hydropower.

The EAPP has identified hydropower projects that will almost double the EAPP’s current installed capacity; an estimated 60% will come from Ethiopian hydropower generation alone.

“Too little information exists about the risks to hydropower dams in East Africa to justify such a heavy growth in hydropower,” the authors state.

The EAPP Master Plan does not include an analysis of the effects of climate change on the regional power strategy or provide any insight into possible problems associated with climate change conditions.

The Master Plan mentions Ethiopia’s vulnerability to drought but makes no attempt to address the impacts of possible droughts on the region’s economy. Africa is considered the continent most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, yet most of its dam projects are being planned with very little analysis of the risks of climate change to these projects.

Lead author Dr Daniel Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California Berkeley, says, “We find that 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. Such a plan can meet even the rapidly growing energy needs of the region, make more significant progress in increasing energy access, and do so in a way that achieves environmental sustainability. The report develops a plan that contributes to a significantly more diverse and vibrant private sector.”

The report notes that the region’s solar resource alone is sufficient to provide the needed energy resources for each EAPP nation, and that available non-hydro renewable electricity sources account for roughly 80% of the identified hydropower projects in the EAPP Master Plan.

Report’s recommendations for rural electrification

The study also looked at the impact of the EAPP on increasing energy access among the poor. In spite of alarmingly high numbers of people in the region without access to modern energy, the EAPP’s Master Plan does not specifically provide detailed plans for alleviating energy poverty in rural communities.

Although 69 million Ethiopians are without electricity, the report finds, Ethiopia is increasing its electricity exports from hundreds of MW’s as of 2014, to over 2,000MW by 2018. In spite of these figures, the EAPP’s Master Plan does not specifically provide detailed plans for alleviating energy poverty in rural communities.

“We recommend the completion of additional studies by the EAPP to capture all small-scale, decentralized potential electricity sources in the entire East African region in order to avoid as many large-scale hydro projects as possible.

The reason for this is simple: mini-grids and community energy programmes can greatly build local energy access and economic opportunity, and can be the ‘seeds’ of growing regional grids.  This decentralized energy policy builds economic growth across nations, which often overly focus their economic empowerment programmes on the capital and large second-tier cities, not on rural communities that are so vital to the quality of life across East Africa.”

Financial risks of hydropower

The study also notes the likelihood of cost containment and cost overruns in a hydropower-heavy EAPP. “Hydropower is prone to the greatest time overruns and the largest amount of a cost overrun – almost US$1 billion per project according to new work from the Global Change Unit at Oxford University.” Wind and solar projects are much less prone to cost overruns. The study recommends diversification of the energy matrix to help reduce cost-overrun risks.

The report further recommends a proper evaluation of the risks of climate change to ensure the financial viability of hydropower and sustainable water access in east Africa. “We recommend the EAPP increase their investment in non-hydro renewables – notably geothermal, solar and wind generation capacity – to avoid large losses due to variable generating capacity of hydroelectric units.”

The EAPP is being supported by the US Government, the World Bank, African Development Bank, and the region’s governments. The full report authored by Daniel M. Kammen, Veronica Jacome, and Nkiruka Avila, can be obtained from International Rivers or UC Berkeley’s Renewable Energy and Appropriate Energy Lab.