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Becoming a hydro superpower will be a mixed blessing for Africa

The continent plans to triple its dam-made electricity in two decades. That’s a massive bet


Hello – some strategic decisions in the green economy are hard. How much hydro power to create in Africa is one of them. We weigh the pros & cons. 

What’s clear: There are alternatives less controversial than damming rivers. The big question in renewable energy is when will solar, wind, et al become conclusively cheaper than hydro? 

We’re reminded that the “green transition” will be not only from a fossil fuel to something cleaner but also between climate-friendly technologies. There’ll be winners and losers in the green economy.

Today’s reading time: 5 mins

LOGISTICS UPDATE | Thursday 22 February 

⏱️ Countdown: UN Environment Assembly starts in Nairobi on Feb 26

📚  New report: Used heavy-duty vehicles & the environment by UNEP

⚡  Also: Nigeria International Energy Summit in Abuja (Feb 26-Mar 1) 


🌳 Other report: African tree-planting initiatives drive biodiversity loss

🔑 Apply: Africa Climate Investing Forum. Deadline: Feb 29

🚌 Job: BasiGo is seeking a Head of Digital

1. Is Africa way ahead or far behind in terms of hydro power?

Home to several of the planet's major rivers, sub-Saharan Africa plans to increase hydro-electricity from 37,000 to around 100,000 MW by 2040. 

  • Views diverge among climate experts if that’s a step in the right direction.

  • Damming rivers to create renewable power comes at a steep cost. 

State of play: Massive hydroelectric projects have a long history in Africa, going back to Egypt’s construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s. 

  • Six African nations (see chart) get more than 90% of their electricity from hydro. 

  • But less than 10% of Africa's hydro power potential has been utilised so far. 

The news: Mozambique just announced plans for a $80 billion (!) plan, adding 14,000 MW, to become one of Africa’s biggest hydro power producers.

Ambitious plans: Total African electric capacity now is 245,000 MW, of which 17% is from hydro. 

The future: Some 43,000 MW of new hydro power is scheduled for development by 2045 across 12 countries forming the Southern Africa Power Pool

Mega project: That excludes the Grand Inga Dam in DRC, the world’s largest hydro project, with a potential long-term capacity exceeding 40,000 MW. 

  • It serves as a symbol of Africa's untapped renewable energy potential. 

  • Yet, securing capital and addressing environmental & social concerns is tricky.

The benefits: Hydro power is cheap, reliable and mature as a technology.

  • In Kenya, hydro power costs  3 cents/kWh, solar 5.5 cents and wind 8 cents.

Out of step: Africa is almost alone globally in betting on hydro power for its future. Only China is keeping up.

  • Large, state-owned projects in Africa and Asia are expected to account for over 75% of new hydro power capacity through 2030.

The debate: The reasons for pulling back from hydro vary by country.

  • Some see dropping prices for wind and solar undermining hydro’s allure. 

  • Others respond to growing environmental and social concerns as river valleys are flooded, communities displaced and riverine ecosystems destroyed.

  • High upfront costs and long earn-back periods also act as a deterrent.

The irony: Perhaps the biggest long-term challenge to hydro is climate change itself.

  • Changing weather patterns mean that river flows will drop in some regions and become less predictable in others, especially in southern Africa.

  • Climate models forecast a 3% decline in the continent's hydro capacity.

  • Almost half of African capacity could become uneconomical under various scenarios.

Size matters: Moderating its ambition may benefit Africa. Smaller may be better. Mega dams have a history of underperforming. 

  • Building them tends to involve delays, corruption and cost overruns. 

  • Operational failures have outsized impact in case of reliance on a single dam.

  • Simpler hydro projects are increasingly seen as more attractive.

Tech solution: Like other forms of renewable energy, hydro benefits from innovation.

  • Enhancements in turbine efficiency can increase power generation while minimising environmental impact.

  • Pumping systems enable flexible and reliable energy storage with minimal investment.

  • Run-of-river projects offer less intrusive methods of harnessing hydroelectric power.

Killer application: Research suggests that hydro generation in Africa could be increased by 10% with two low-cost initiatives:

  • Utilising the many reservoir-dams already in existence to generate electricity.

  • Upgrading existing turbine and generator technology to improve performance.

Access the individual story here.

2. Cheat sheet: Three things to know about African superdams

(i) The current kings of the lot are the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and the Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique. They have a joint capacity of 11,000 MW. (The top ten are mapped above.)

(ii) This is still comparatively modest compared to the world’s three biggest dams: The Three Gorges Dam in China, the Itaipu Dam in Brazil & Paraguay, and the Xiluodu Dam in China. Together they have a capacity of 50,000 MW.

(iii) But if or when the Grand Inga Dam in DR Congo is built, its capacity alone would be 40,000 MW. Or twice the capacity of the current world leader, the Three Gorges Dam.

Access the individual story here.

3. Number of the week

… is the minimum percentage of battery life that electric cars imported into Kenya must have, according to new rules from the Kenya Bureau of Standards. Vehicles with more tired batteries are banned.

Access the individual story here.

4. Network corner

Arnergy raised $3 million in a bridge round from All On, a Shell-backed off-grid energy impact investment company, to provide solar power to homes and businesses in Nigeria.

Spiro, the electric bike firm, expands into Nigeria with 13 swapping stations in pilot areas.

5. Q&A: Climate leaders with answers

Frederick Mutitika is a product manager at BasiGo, whose electric buses have driven 1.3 million kilometres in Africa, transported nearly 2 million people and saved 600 tonnes of carbon emissions.

Q: How did the company come to exist? A: BasiGo was inspired by the visibly clearer skies over Nairobi when car traffic died down during the COVID-19 lockdowns, prompting the founders to think about sustainable urban mobility. 

Q: What is your secret ingredient? A: Our success hinges on a diverse team of passionate individuals with expertise in diverse fields, from technical operations to software development. We focus on building teams committed to our mission.

Q: Are you able to make money? A: Yes. We have a fairly unique financing model for electric buses. It’s “pay as you drive”. Bus owners pay for the distance covered. And commuters can use our Jani app to book seats and reduce wait times at bus stops.

Q: That doesn’t sound like the hectic world of matatu minibuses…? A: No, no shouting needed. Data is at the core of everything we do, guiding our operations and customer engagement. By analysing metrics, we can ensure a seamless and clean commute.

Q: What’s next? A: We want to establish electric buses as a cornerstone of urban transport across Africa.

Access the individual story here.

6. Media monitoring

  • Funding: The World Bank allocates $195m to climate resilience in Senegal.

  • Green hydrogen: Uganda signed a $400m deal for a green hydrogen fertiliser plant.

  • Biodiversity: West African states lead the way on conservation with a regional plan.

  • Partners: Tunisia and Italy kicked off an electricity interconnection project.

  • Forests: Microsoft will purchase 350,000 CO2 removal credits from a Kenyan agroforestry project.

Don’t have time to read 100+ media sources every day? We’ve done the reading for you. Check out our full media monitoring here 

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Thanks to the Green Rising team for putting this together.

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