Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda: East African renewable power can end South Africa’s coal dependence

By David Whitehouse

Posted on Wednesday, 22 February 2023 09:58
Wind turbines at the Lake Turkana Wind Power project in Loiyangalani district, northern Kenya, September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Renewable energy sources in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda have the potential to end South Africa’s reliance on coal, George Aluru, chair of the Electricity Sector Association of Kenya (ESAK), tells The Africa Report.

The three countries combined have energy generation potential well in excess of their ability to consume, Aluru argues. “If the three go full throttle on renewable power, we won’t be able to consume it. The problem is where to sell the power.”

Connections between Africa’s eastern and southern power pools would allow Kenyan power to be sold in the south of the continent, Aluru says. Hydro power from Ethiopia and Uganda could be made available by the same route, he adds.

South Africa’s economy is handicapped by recurrent load-shedding by state-owned Eskom, which relies on aging coal-fired generators. The country’s coal lobby argues that while renewable energy sources can help meet variable demand, they can’t be relied on for baseload. That is correct for solar and wind power, but geothermal and hydro power can be used for baseload as production levels don’t vary with the weather, Aluru says.

Hydro generation levels are affected by climate rather than weather, and natural gas from Mozambique and Tanzania could be used as a complement in South Africa to ensure security of supply, he adds.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said in July that Eskom will start to buy power through the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP). Tanzania, as a member of both SAPP and the Eastern Africa Power Pool (EAPP), is a crucial piece of the jigsaw. The country still lacks a transmission connection with Mozambique or Zambia.

A Kenya-Tanzania line is due to be completed this year, and a line between Tanzania and Zambia is scheduled for 2025. “Once these lines are up and running we have the capacity to trade,” Aluru says. The Tanzania-Mozambique connection is due to be ready in 2026 and is “the critical missing link,” he says. A connection between the two countries would “effectively link east Africa with Johannesburg.”

Ethiopia, Uganda potential

Aluru is also managing director of the Kenyan unit of Spanish renewable energy company Ecoener. The company, which trades on the Spanish stock exchange, has assets in central and southern America and Spain as well as Kenya. The office in Nairobi is intended as a springboard for expansion into sub-Saharan Africa, Aluru says.

The largest volumes of power traded within the EAPP currently goes from Egypt to Libya, from Ethiopia to Djibouti, and from Ethiopia and Egypt to Sudan. A connection between Kenya and Ethiopia was recently completed following the signature of a power-purchase agreement between the countries in July 2022. Tests are now being carried out before the connection is put into full use.

Ethiopia, according to the US International Trade Administration (ITA), has the potential to generate over 60,000 MW of electric power from hydroelectric, wind, solar and geothermal sources. That exceeds South Africa’s current generation of 58,000 MW from all sources.

Uganda also has the potential to contribute, Aluru says. The country’s largest hydropower project, the 600 MW Karuma hydro power dam is due to come online by June. The US ITA says that Karuma will increase Uganda’s total capacity by 44.7% and potentially leave over 1000 MW of excess in the system. Connection lines from Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan are due to go into operation in 2026.

Kenyan target

Some argue that the fact that hundreds of millions of Africans lack access to electricity justifies the development of the continent’s unexploited fossil resources. Kenya’s experience shows that another path is possible. The proportion of Kenyans with electricity access increased from 28% in 2013 to 71% in 2020, even as the population increased by 7 million people.  Geothermal, hydro, wind, and solar power accounted for 81% of Kenya’s electricity generation in 2021, and the country aims to reach 100% clean energy by 2030.

Aluru is confident that the goal can be reached. A key task for the country is to stimulate demand for power in areas such as e-mobility which would unleash more projects, he says. A virtuous circle would then follow. “If we can encourage more demand, we can produce more power.”

The Kenyan grid has capacity of 3.1 gigawatts, but the country has geothermal potential of 10 gigawatts, matched by similar levels in solar and wind, Aluru says. Finding domestic and export demand is the key to exploiting it. “We can’t develop it because we don’t know where it’s going.”

Investment to strengthen the grid in Kenya is needed, while tariffs for wheeling, under which third-party providers are allowed to supply power via the grid, would also help reach full potential, Aluru says. Wheeling in Kenya is allowed, but more regulations, such as over ancillary services, are needed before it becomes a practical possibility, he adds.

Bottom line

East Africa is wondering what it will do with its surplus power as South Africa sits in the dark.

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