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The Rise, Challenges, and Potential of Hydropower in Africa

Africa stands at the precipice of an energy revolution, with the 74-cubic-kilometer Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) at its helm. But how will hydropower in Africa fit into Africa’s future amidst climate and economic challenges?

Africa’s Expanding Hydropower Landscape

The GERD, slated to produce over 6 GW of electricity by the mid-2020s, is a testament to Africa’s hydropower aspirations. Across the continent, there are numerous initiatives proposing over 100 GW of hydropower. Africa, blessed with massive rivers like the Nile, Congo, Niger, and Zambezi, is uniquely positioned to tap into this energy resource. Beyond energy, these projects hold promise for increased food security through irrigation and flood control for riparian communities.

However, the GERD is just one project among many. As of now, there are dozens of similar endeavours either in the proposal stage or already under construction. With such potential, one might assume that Africa’s energy concerns are nearing their end. But the question remains: will these ambitious projects deliver as expected, or will unforeseen challenges change the course?

Challenges Facing Africa’s Hydropower

The hydropower prospects might seem bright, but shadows of challenges cast their doubts. Top on this list is the unpredictable influence of climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, weather patterns become erratic, which can pose direct threats to river flow patterns that are pivotal for the operations of these dams.

But the issues are not only environmental. The rapid advancements in technology and declining costs have made solar and wind energy increasingly accessible and affordable. A study published in the Science Journal on 11th August puts forth a sobering perspective. It suggests that, looking ahead, hydropower might not always be the most cost-effective energy solution for Africa. Large dam projects, which once held the promise of energy security, now grapple with economic viability issues. These traditional forms of hydropower now find themselves challenged by the flexibility and scalability that newer renewable energy sources provide.

Future of Dams Amidst Renewable Energy

The future isn’t bleak for dams, though. There’s more to them than just energy production. In a renewable-centric world, energy storage becomes paramount. Here’s where dams can play a pivotal role. They can function as natural batteries, storing energy for times when the sun doesn’t shine or the winds are still. This dual role of dams – both as power generators and storage units – could ensure their relevance in the future energy mix.

Andrea Castelletti, an environmental planner, aptly notes the delicate balance required. Dams present an opportunity, but their execution demands attention and care. Large-scale investments in hydropower require meticulous planning and foresight.

Another interesting angle emerges from a cross-disciplinary study conducted by researchers from the Kigali Collaborative Research Centre, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Washington. This research emphasizes the importance of international cooperation for optimizing hydropower. Currently, sub-Saharan Africa is segmented into four energy “power pools.” The proposal? By strengthening and interlinking these pools, there can be a seamless transition between solar, wind, and hydropower, depending on availability and demand.

Hydropower in Africa is at a crossroads. While it faces formidable challenges, both natural and man-made, it also stands as a beacon of hope for a continent aiming for energy self-sufficiency. The journey ahead requires careful planning, international cooperation, and an integrated approach that synergizes the strengths of various renewable energy sources. With the right strategies in place, Africa can not only ensure a stable energy future for itself but also set an example for other regions aiming to harness their natural resources optimally.

Feel free to contact the Energy Transition Centre today with questions. 

·  Julius Moerder, Head of Energy Transition Centre [email protected]

·  Oneyka Ojogbo, Head of Energy Transition Centre, Nigeria & West Africa [email protected]

·  Leon van Der Merwe, Head of Energy Transition Centre, South Africa [email protected]

Author: Memoona Tawfiq