The 120-megawatt, 84-turbine Ashegoda Wind Farm in Ethiopia opened this week in an arid region about 765 kilometers from the capital, Addis Ababa. The farm was completed in three phases and has actually been generating power for some time now, but was formally inaugurated by the prime minister on Saturday.
Those 120 MW actually represent about 5 percent of Ethiopia's entire installed electricity generating capacity based on the Energy Information Administration's latest data (and a more recent interview with the head of Ethiopia's state-run utility). Scaling up Africa's energy supplies is considered an enormous priority for helping to draw many millions of people out of poverty, and doing so with renewable energy is a no-brainer. Ethiopia alone has an estimated wind power potential of more than 1000 gigawatts (roughly the installed electricity capacity of the United States, from all energy sources). And while only a few projects are in the works in that country, an African Development Bank study from earlier this year reported that about 10.5 gigawatts of wind power currently in the pipeline across the continent.
The big controversy with electricity expansion in Africa relates to another renewable resource: hydroelectric power. Ethiopia already gets 90 percent of its existing electricity from dams, a source obviously fraught with environmental concerns of its own. And the country is moving ahead on a truly massive project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which, at nearly 6000 MW, will triple the country's total capacity. Egypt has concerns that the dam, which will create a massive reservoir on the Blue Nile, will affect the downstream flow of the Nile to an extent that will affect both its own power supply and cause other water-related issues.
And then there's the ever-present threat of the Grand Inga Dam, a hydroelectric behemoth still under consideration on the Congo River. If built to its full capacity, it would be nearly double the size of the biggest hydroelectric project on the planet, China's Three Gorges Dam, at around 40 000 MW. The latest news on that project has construction for pieces of it beginning in 2015.
The quick-hit potential of such massive electricity development is hard to resist in a continent where 500 million people lack access to power. But it is exciting as well that wind power projects like the one in Ethiopia are starting to take hold, along with the ever-present potential of Saharan solar power. And the money for these projects is starting to flow as well, highlighted by U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement earlier this year of a US $7 billion grant for the Power Africa project; much of that cash will go toward renewable energy projects.
Photo: Kumerra Gemechu/Reuters