Hydropower, and in particular small scale hydro, has huge potential in Africa and can play an important role in bringing development to rural areas. Whereas large scale hydro can boost grid connected electricity, small scale hydro is an ideal technology for remote rural areas, advises Wim Jonker Klunne, Programme Director from the Energy and Environment Partnership (EEP).

Africa continues to suffer from energy poverty despite high capital investments being poured into large hydro schemes and other sources like thermal and gas generation. While governments in most African countries with high hydropower potential are planning for large hydropower schemes – there is little effort to invest in smaller, cheaper and quicker options to meet to Africa’s critical power demands.

Depending on the generation potential (size) of the hydropower plant, commissioning can take anywhere from four to twenty years in Africa. Many industry experts state that the challenges with large hydropower schemes in Africa have created controversies dampening Africa’s hydro sector’s progression as a whole.

Bigger may not always be better

As a country that has to wait for years to get power, the Mozambican government is solidly focused on raising an estimated $3 billion for the construction of the Mphanda Nkuwa Hydropower Plant. A project that claims to revolutionise Mozambique’s social and economic developments while contributing to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) power deficits with a potential annual total generation of about 8.600 GW.

"The Mphanda Nkuwa project features many promising positive deliverables. Most on-going large scale hydropower projects in Africa seem to deliver the same benefits if not more but appear to be failing to deliver on many aspects, impacting the sector’s advancement. The reason for this is due to high capital costs, critical environmental – socio economic impact concerns and not to mention that most of these large scale projects are located in volatile political regions setting long development timeframes", expressed Yolanda dos Santos, hydropower programme manager for African Utility Week.

Large scale hydropower projects

International Rivers Africa Program Director, Rudo Snayanag explains that, "there are a lot of problems associated with large hydropower schemes but one of the major concerns is that it is only cost-effective for urban centres and industry where population densities are high and people can pay for it. The majority of African people without power are in rural Africa where grid connections are unaffordable".

Sanyanga recently conducted a study comparing Itapúa and Three Gorges dam explaining that, "despite social and environmental issues it is amazing that African power plants are inefficiently operated. They perform far below capacity and there is no regular maintenance for most. Problems are ignored until it’s a crisis. Itapúa and Three Gorges are huge power schemes with yearly capacity as high as 98%. Our African power stations average about 50%. Even new power plants like the Bujugali in Uganda fail to meet the projected production capacity."

Small hydropower

Micro to small hydropower projects have the ability to overcome the various challenges associated with large scale projects and are thus able to offer a more viable solution, making it a quick win to meet Africa’s power needs.

Dean Pratt, Managing Director at MarelliMotori, indicates that the Italian hydro engineering firm has demonstrated significant successes in the implementation of micro hydro projects across the world, specifically within the African continent (in countries like Zimbabwe and Kenya). These plants typically took less than two years to be completed – from the awarding of the contract to the commencement of operations. The additional benefits of such micro hydropower projects are that they allow for the use of local businesses (whose capacity is usually too small to be involved in large-scale projects) and thus generate local employment while adhering to national power demands much quicker.

Innovation gives hydropower a competitive edge versus other renewables

Conduit hydropower is an innovative solution that is suggested to overcome certain challenges that stand in the way of the successful implementation of traditional hydropower projects in Africa. Conduit hydropower utilises the mechanical energy of water as it flows through existing distribution infrastructure such as tunnels, pipelines and canals amongst other urban infrastructure that may exist to generate electricity. Since conduit hydropower "piggybacks" on existing infrastructure networks, Adriaan Kurtz, Design and Planning Engineer of the City of Tshwane in South Africa, highlights that, "relative to alternative solutions, it involves very low capital investments, has limited environment impacts and is a great approach to be implemented by water municipalities within its existing water distribution systems.

"In conclusion, Sanyanga proposes the question, "Renewable energy- can it replace hydro? I would say no, but there is greater need for a diverse energy mix to meet the African countries needs and safeguard against climate change and other problems".

Discover new market strategies and ventures to advance your hydro developments in Africa
Wim Jonker Klunne, Rudo Snayanag, Dean Pratt and Adriaan Kurtz invite you and industry peers to join the interactive discussions to share best practices that will advance solutions for the hydropower industry to expand to its full potential in Africa. Join the forthcoming 15th annual African Utility Week & Clean Power Africa from 12-14 May 2015 in Cape Town. No project will be too large or too small. Identify tailor made solutions to meet your requirements at African Utility Week & Clean Power Africa’s 3-day international exhibition that includes hydro engineers, power solution specialists and financial donor organisations such as GIBB, Gilkes, MarelliMotori, Accenture, Building Energy, Power Africa, and many more giving their core product and market strategies.


Image: Shiwang’andu Small Hydropower Project in Zambia. Courtesy IN-SHP