Admin explores the connection between climate change and renewable energy in South Africa and Africa at large.
One of the action areas for this year’s UN Climate Action Summit is Energy transition. This includes accelerating the shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources. One such source of renewable energy is hydropower.
Hydropower: A Sustainable, Clean, Low-Carbon Source of Energy
Hydropower has generally been viewed as a sustainable, clean, low-carbon source of energy. It is flexible, reliable, and cost-efficient. Being a clean, low-carbon source of energy, it can significantly reduce global reliance on the fossil fuels responsible for climate change.
According to the World Energy Council, hydropower accounts for more than 70% of the world’s installed renewable power generation capacity. While it remains a largely untapped opportunity in Africa (it has developed only 7% of its potential, the lowest proportion of any of the world’s regions), it is a critical component of African governments’ plans to meet growing energy needs.
Hydropower in Africa
Some African countries have long seen the benefits of hydropower and are already highly dependent on it for the majority of their energy supply. It accounts for over 90% of electricity generation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia. It also provides 20% of energy generation across the entire Southern Africa region.
Three of the largest rivers in the world – the Congo, Zambezi, and Nile – power most of this electrical generating capacity. There is even more untapped potential in these rivers that is attracting much focus for future development. In total, roughly 80GW of future additional hydropower capacity is envisioned for Africa in the coming decades. This includes 28GW of potential hydropower located on the Nile and 13GW on the Zambezi. The Program for Infrastructure Development (PIDA), endorsed by African leaders in 2012, allocates nearly one-third (US$21 billion) of its priority budget allocation to hydropower.
The Debate Over Hydropower Development
However, opinions differ over whether the development of hydropower dams in developing countries should be prioritized. Many major schemes remain associated with serious social and environmental concerns. This is especially true where large infrastructure and associated water storage have an impact on livelihoods that are dependent on ecosystem services lost from the river.
The Impact of Climate Change on Hydropower
Climate change has the potential to impact the hydropower sector through regional changes in rainfall and water availability, protracted drought events, significant variation in temperature regimes, and more frequent and severe weather events.
Potential impacts are estimated through scenarios projected across the expected lifespan of a hydropower dam. This generally ranges from 50 to 100 years. The storage capacity and operational flexibility of most hydropower systems in Africa have been designed to account for historical patterns of hydrological variability. Contingency measures enable the mitigation of dry periods.
Most early-stage technical assessments continue to rely on historical hydro-meteorological records. However, the long lifespan of hydropower infrastructure exposes their operations to decades of climatic variability at a time when our capacity to accurately forecast climatic conditions is getting harder.
Hydropower has generally been viewed as a sustainable, clean, low-carbon source of energy that can significantly reduce global reliance on fossil fuels responsible for climate change. However, opinions differ over whether its development should be prioritized due to social and environmental concerns. Climate change also poses challenges to its future viability.