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Are large hydropower projects the solution for developing nations? Aklile Gessesse, Ethiopia operations and commercial manager for Stantec unpacks this critical subject.

Energy and water security are central elements to lifting millions of people in Africa out of poverty. For the countries of sub-Saharan Africa — home to about 1.1 billion people still living without electricity — hydropower represents the least-tapped energy resource with the greatest potential to supply cheap, abundant and clean electricity on a large scale.

Currently, the sub-Saharan Africa region is only adding 1,000 MW of additional power generation annually. That is not nearly enough. To meet projected growth, Africa needs to add 7,000 MW of generation capacity each year.

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Multi-purpose dams increase water storage, irrigation and water security. But most importantly, they provide the infrastructure necessary to add hydropower to our energy future. When done right, hydropower can sustainably generate affordable, reliable and renewable electricity to power homes, clinics and schools while simultaneously creating jobs, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and preparing people for increasingly extreme weather conditions.

In my home country of Ethiopia, multi-purpose dams with hydropower have become a critical component to addressing energy shortages.

The Ethiopian energy dilemma

Ethiopia is a large, diverse and land-locked country located in the Horn of Africa with an estimated population of about 100 million people. It is the second most populous country in Africa, and over 80% of its citizens live in rural communities.

Over the past decade, Ethiopia has made substantial progress in promoting economic, social and human development. It has one of the fastest-growing economies in the region and has set long-term goals directed at becoming a lower-to-middle-income country by 2025.

Triggered by drought conditions and the demand for energy outpacing supply, memories of the 2009 energy supply shortage in Ethiopia are still fresh. During that time, utilities resorted to country-wide load shedding, which could last between 16 to 18 hours every day. The only solutions available at the time were expensive rental power, shutting down operations for a month, or the use of their own diesel generation. Long-term solutions are desperately needed.

Ethiopia makes a long-term investment in energy

The 2009 Ethiopian energy crisis exposed the nation’s energy challenges. But it also led to a sustainable solution: Public investment in large-scale infrastructure and energy. Since 2009, the country has nearly quadrupled its available generation capacity. And today, Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world that generates almost all of its electricity from renewable resources.

Hydropower is not only tried and tested but will play a pivotal role in the future of power generation. It is vital to economic and social development in many of the developing countries in Africa.

The 254-MW Genale-Dawa 3 hydropower project in Ethiopia is an example of the country’s power infrastructure.

The International Energy Agency reported about 1 GW of geothermal energy production and 2 GW of wind energy production are expected to be added by 2030. However, the key component of the electrification effort revolves around hydropower. About 22 GW of hydropower is expected to be added in the next decade.

There are several hydropower projects of various sizes and stages of completion in Ethiopia. Stantec has worked with utility owners in the nation to ensure that:

  • The benefits of hydropower flow to some of the most vulnerable populations.
  • Planning processes are inclusive and transparent.
  • The risks of hydropower are fully understood.
  • The people and the environment are safeguarded.

Prioritizing electrification in rural areas

Although Ethiopia has the second highest available generation capacity in sub-Saharan Africa — mostly based on hydropower — the nation’s huge energy resources are at odds with their electrification rate. Despite the substantial investments to expand the grid network to almost 70% of towns and villages, Ethiopia’s power sector falls short on effective and reliable delivery.

This map shows the location of several large hydropower projects in Ethiopia.

In fact, the country still faces the second highest electricity deficit in Africa, with about 60 million people living without access to power. For example, the Gibe III Hydropower project can produce 1,870 MW of energy annually — enough to power 1.2 million homes. But only 27% of rural households in Ethiopia have access to this electricity. These rural and deep-rural households are located at the edge of the electric grid, sometimes called the “last mile.”

Recognizing this issue, the government launched the National Electrification Program (NEP) in 2017. The program is an integrated approach at achieving universal electricity access by 2025. The program builds on the previous achievements of grid expansion and places a greater focus on “last mile” electrification for households.

NEP 2.0 takes the program a step further and encompasses both grid and off-grid solutions. The full-fledged off-grid program leverages technical and analytical tools recently made available, including a Multi-Tier Framework (MTF) in combination with GIS tools. The updated program aims to provide millions of new grid connections as well as off-grid solutions through stand-alone solar power applications and microgrids.

Electricity for all of Africa

For many years now, sub-Saharan Africa has been focused on driving affordable, efficient and resilient energy systems to rapidly provide energy access and increase economic development. This is only achievable by partnering with governments, utilities, development agencies and the private sector. However, electricity generally only reaches urban areas and commercial sectors, bypassing the region’s large rural populations. This needs to change.

With the scale of unmet need for electricity in these rural towns, as well as declining water security and the increased climate threats facing these communities, African countries need to develop — and effectively finance — the right projects for their local conditions.

Ethiopia has taken the first steps by building hydroelectric dams throughout the country. And while solar power, microgrids and even hydrogen will play their part, big hydro will continue to take the lead in efforts toward energy security. Ethiopia will only achieve its vision of providing reliable electricity throughout the country by continuing to focus on grid expansion and the electrification for rural households.

The work I do every day is more than a job. It’s an opportunity to give back to my home country and provide clean, renewable power to those suffering from energy shortages.

Author: Aklile Gessesse is Ethiopia operations and commercial manager for Stantec. His 30-year career has brought him around the world and enabled him to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the industry, including water, environmental and energy issues.

This article was originally published in Stantec’s Energy & Resources Advisor and is republished with permission.