Africa’s untapped hydropower potential

Africa is the world’s most energy-starved continent, home to 645 million people without access to grid electricity. This is stifling economic growth, fueling conflict and forcing people to leave their homes in search of a better life.

But Africa is also abundant in natural resources, including geothermal, gas, coal and gigantic waterways offering huge amounts of untapped hydropower potential.

Take the Congo River in central Africa. Engineers say that the section of the river that plunges down the Inga falls between the Congolese capital Kinshasha and the Atlantic Ocean could one day be the site of the world’s biggest hydropower station. If built it would house 50 turbines generating 40GW of power – twenty times what the Hoover Dam in the United States produces and a third of Africa’s current power production.

A project like this does not come cheap. The estimated $100 billion price-tag puts it far out of the reach of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the river system is located and significant amounts of international assistance will be required to get it off the ground.

This is not to say that massive hydro projects can’t happen in African countries.

Ethiopia – where less than a quarter of the population have electricity – is currently putting the finishing touches to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam on the River Nile, a project that has been largely self-financed. Once complete it will be the eighth largest dam in the world, capable of supplying the equivalent power of six nuclear power stations.

Big hydropower stations like this have major advantages over smaller scale renewables like wind and solar. First and foremost, they produce more power. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will supply electricity to millions of households and businesses, whereas Africa’s biggest concentrated solar plant (in the Northern Cape, South Africa) only powers 80,000 homes.

Just as important, hydro is a source of ‘baseload’ electricity like geothermal and fossil fuels. This means it can provide 24/7 power and is not dependent on the sun shining or the wind blowing.

The main disadvantages are the cost of construction and the limited number of suitable waterways that can be tapped. International consultancy firm McKinsey estimate that hydro could at most contribute 15 percent of Africa’s electricity by 2040.

But with hundreds of millions still languishing in dire energy poverty, denied access to safe healthcare or growing businesses, Africa will desperately need that contribution to close the energy gap.