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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.