Africa's hydropower modernisation opportunities

Vast opportunities for the development of renewable energy exist in Africa as the continent holds the world’s largest percentage of untapped hydropower potential. However, hydropower plants in Africa are aging, some of which countries rely on for most of their electricity. Modernisation programmes are therefore crucial to accelerating the continent’s transition to clean energy.

To support the development of Africa’s green sector, the African Development Bank partnered with the International Hydropower Association to map the status of current hydropower plants on the continent and identify modernisation requirements. As highlighted in the AfDB’s report, “Continent-wide mapping of hydropower rehabilitation candidates” under the Africa Hydropower Modernisation Programme, IHA investigated the conditions of 87 hydropower projects across Africa to provide a comprehensive assessment of the investment required for refurbishment.

Modernisation is urgently needed in Africa as 60 per cent of hydropower facilities throughout the region are over 20 years old. Aging technology can cause mechanical issues that slow down the efficiency of operations and electricity production. In the study, facilities were classified as either high, medium or low need, respectively, indicating that the plant is reaching the end of its life, modernisation is completed or ongoing or refurbishment is not needed.

IHA categorised over 60 per cent of hydropower plants reviewed in the study as high or medium need. This places 14.7 GW of installed capacity, in addition to communities supported, at risk, showcasing the pressing necessity for rehabilitation programmes.

IHA estimates that approximately US$2.1 billion must be invested to ensure reliable and safe electricity from hydropower plants identified as high-need, and US$4.7 billion for medium-need.

However, the advantages of refurbishment programmes far exceed the costs. As highlighted in the 2023 World Hydropower Outlook, modernisation provides ample benefits for the hydropower industry due to improving facilities’ efficiency and flexibility. The implementation of innovative technologies harnesses hydropower’s full potential by expanding the generation capacity of plants.

In countries with ambitious decarbonisation plans, modernising hydropower with the latest technology to enhance flexibility services will help facilitate growth in other renewables. The deployment of wind and solar is expected to significantly grow in Africa, supporting nations’ emissions reduction targets. Hydropower’s flexibility and storage capabilities are necessary for supporting fluctuations in wind and solar, which are further enhanced through modernisation programmes.

Refurbishment will preserve hydropower plants to stand for decades to come, making them more climate resilient. As a result, facilities will better endure extreme weather events that are becoming increasingly frequent due to climate change. Updated and efficient hydropower facilities can also help protect communities through flood protection and water storage services.

IHA found that rehabilitation projects provide environmental and social (E&S) benefits as facility upgrades will have a limited impact on the environment. Modernising hydropower plants represents an opportunity to ensure the health and safety of workers and improve their ecological footprint. These benefits can be ensured through the utilisation of the Hydropower Sustainability Standard, a global certification scheme, outlining sustainability expectations for hydropower projects around the world.  

The advantages of restoration programmes are best seen in the redevelopment of Liberia’s Mount Coffee Hydropower station, completed in 2017. Originally destroyed during the Liberian Civil War in 1990, an entire rebuild of the plant increased its pre-war installed capacity of 64 MW to 88 MW. One million people in the country are now enjoying not only a stable electricity supply but also affordable energy prices.

The impacts of the report are already being felt as the AfDB is using the publication as a guide to identify candidates for modernisation programmes. IHA and AfDB hope that the results of the study will drive the conversation forward, igniting dialogue with the owners of high and medium-need plants in Africa. Once identified as targets, hydropower facilities become more attractive to investors, facilitating economic growth, and lighting up a bright future for the continent.

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