Hydropower: A Risky Business

The power of Africa’s rivers is truly incredible, with a potential to create over 400 GW of electricity. For a continent with 600 million people in the dark, the appeal of hydro — an accessible renewable energy source that can be inexpensive to develop — is easy to understand.

But hydropower has a critical downside — when it doesn’t rain, the power stops.  And for many regions in Africa, such as those that are susceptible to lengthy dry seasons and years-long droughts, the ramifications of a hydro-reliant power grid can be dire.

In recent months, Kenyans felt the sting of expensive power, as the country’s power utility battled to keep the turbines spinning despite an unexpectedly lengthy dry season, and therefore unexpectedly dry dams. About 60 percent of Kenya’s power comes from hydro, and major suppliers like the 40MW Masinga hydroelectric dam were on the verge of a complete close down until rains in the last three weeks filled up reservoirs.

Last year, Malawi, which sources 98 percent of its power supply from hydro, went almost completely dark when the Shire River reached critical levels during severe drought. In both cases, the electricity shortages can have serious consequences on the economy, putting a strain on the daily consumer as prices jump and negatively impacting industrialization and manufacturing efforts. Diesel generators, an expensive and heavy fuel option, often bridged the gap while water is low. Countries like Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe also experienced outages due to 2015-2016 El Niño, while countries like Equatorial Guinea have experienced outages during the annual dry season.

A report by the London School of Economics and Political Science warns “that the location of planned dams could put the electricity security of large parts of southern and eastern Africa at risk.”

“Rainfall variability, in the form of dry and wet periods which can last for several years at a time, is an important feature of much of Africa’s climate. If many dams depend on the same rainfall patterns they will be vulnerable to the same variations – for example drought,” the report continues.

Regional Power Pools Provide Coverage

A pan-African approach could be an answer for Africa’s hydro woes. With hydro, a critical stopgap solution will be regional cooperation.

Since different rain patterns exist in different regions, while one country may be experiencing a drought and a power deficiency, another country could be experiencing a surplus. The ability to share power cross borders and cross regions, therefore, becomes valuable.

“Although our research finds that within regions hydropower is reliant on the same rainfall patterns, between regions rainfall patterns differ.  This means that new regional power sharing mechanisms (which are call ‘Power Pools’) could provide a means to buffer variations in river discharge or reservoir storage through electricity trading,” stated the LSE report.

Historically, however, there has been limited cooperation with Africa’s power pools. And, when there is a call to cooperate cross-region, the challenges are only amplified, from a lack of infrastructure and cost to cultural and political differences between regimes.

But with so much potential for hydropower, and a desperate need for power in general, more pan-African cooperation in the power sector could be on the horizon.