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, founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory

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, International Rivers

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